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Tour lets you walk in footsteps of history as seen by America’s earliest inhabitants


“People often ask me, ‘What was Crazy Horse like?’ ”says Serle Chapman, standing in 2-foot-tall prairie grass dappled with wild sage and backed by Bear Butte, the Plains Indians’ most sacred of places.

A group of eight tourists from across the United States, England and Australia listen, spellbound, despite the frigid October mist.


“I tell them, ‘I think he was beautiful.'”

“Perhaps not the word that most would use to describe this iconic Lakota leader. But then most have heard only of Crazy Horse the warrior — not Crazy Horse the romantic who relinquished his Shirt Wearer (war leader) status in a peace agreement that included the protection and gentle treatment of the woman he loved. Neither Hollywood nor the mainstream publishing industry is likely to tell you such stories — at least not accurately.


That’s why Chapman and wife Sarah founded Sheridan, Wyoming- and Montana-based Go Native America, offering an exhaustive series of tours that take participants deep into Indian Country to experience firsthand the sights, sounds, tastes and histories of America’s first inhabitants. A primary aim is simply to contest what many call the “bastardization” of the Native experience. Yet, for many participants, the result is a journey not just physical, but emotional, spiritual and often life-changing.

Described by the Associated Press as “one of America’s 50 most influential writers,” Chapman is the best-selling author and photographer of seven books, including Of Earth and Elders, the award-winning Promise: Bozeman’s Trail to Destiny and We, The People, which includes a forward written by former President Bill Clinton. A tireless supporter of Native youth and education programs, Chapman has received commendations from U.S. and world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and former U.S. Senators John Edwards and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (a member of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Nation). His own forebears include legendary frontier scout Amos Chapman and Mary Chapman, also known as Long Neck Woman, the daughter of Southern Cheyenne Chief Sleeping Bear and adopted daughter of Chief Stone Calf. Go Native America is listed in National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime,” and Chapman made Wanderlust magazine’s top six tour guides worldwide.

Chapman’s knowledge of America’s indigenous peoples and their histories is surpassed only by his passion for sharing it. So it’s no surprise that the Chapmans go out of their way to bring tour participants as close as possible to walking in the very footsteps of people whose stories they’re hearing.

My group’s 13-day journey, titled “Elk Medicine,” took us to various locales in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, via a rented passenger bus and one-night stays at Best Westerns, Holiday Inns and one-room cabins in valley of the Badlands National Park. It began with an entrance into the Black Hills in the traditional Lakota way — through Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, population 164, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Here, among what is now a National Grasslands property boasting 591,000 acres of prairie intermingled with rocky badlands, herds of buffalo entered the Hills on their migratory journeys centuries ago.


“The landscape here seems to pulse with a heartbeat,” tour participant Jan Yoxall wrote of the experience in her Southeast England-based blog, MedicineBowlCafe. “It speaks to those who take the time to listen and as Serle relates the Lakota stories to us, the wind suddenly builds up as if reinforcing what he is telling us, then it disappears suddenly.”

Here, Chapman speaks of the traditional Lakota way of lifeway, the ceremonial journey that is linked to the sun’s passage through the constellations and the relationship between the buffalo and human beings. At Vore Buffalo Jump, he explains the mechanics and the spiritual aspects of buffalo jumps, which involved enticing small groups of buffalo from the herds and running them over the edges of cliff formations. As the animals crashed below, tribal women would finish them off as quickly as possible to alleviate their suffering.

“Their perceptional reality was that the buffalo was a relative,” Chapman says.

Chapman also shared the Native version of the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, a k a Custer’s Last Stand. It’s true that the famed U.S. Army Cavalry Commander was outnumbered, outmaneuvered and outsmarted by a large coalition of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. You’ll read that in any history book. But oral histories among the Native peoples suggest that two women, one Lakota, one Cheyenne fought among those who finished off the flamboyant Custer.

The day continued with a walk through Custer State Park in search of wild buffalo and elk, and a visit to Wind Cave, revered as the Lakota Nation’s place of genesis. And our group ended our first evening with the He Sapa Wacipi-Black Hills Powwow, a virtual kaleidoscope of color, culture, music, dance and drumbeats.

Throughout the trip, we would visit many places of interest and of reverence: the Museum of the Fur Trade; the site of the original Red Cloud Agency; the Allison Treaty Grounds, the start of the struggle for the Black Hills that led to the “Great Sioux War of 1876,” deliberately provoked by the Grant administration (the subsequent illegal military seizure of the Black Hills violated the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the legal conflict continues today), and the Medicine Wheel in the snowy reaches of the Bighorn Mountains, an ancient place of prayer and meditation.

Several stops drew deep emotional reactions, particularly our visit to Wounded Knee. Several of us stood sobbing at the gated edge of the mass grave bearing victims of the slaughter that marks one of America’s darkest hours. (HBO’s recent Emmy-honored “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by the way, won little praise from the locals, who call the film, at best, a fictionalized history.)

Guests you’ll meet along the way on a Go Native America tour include people like Ernie LaPointe, who must have more second cousins than anybody on the planet. Seems everyone wants to be the great-grandchild of Lakota statesman, holy man and Sun Dancer Sitting Bull. But only LaPointe and his sisters have the documents and the oral history to prove that claim. As proud of his French heritage as he is of his Lakota lineage, LaPointe shakes his head in frustration at the countless strangers who claim a blood connection to his family.

“I tell them, ‘somewhere in the Spirit World, your ancestor is hurting,’ ” he says. “‘He is sad because you don’t want to be his family. You want to be someone else’s.'”

Our group also met Lakota traditionalist Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, a recognized spiritual leader on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and respected Oglala Lakota historian and educator. Mesteth is an ardent preservationist of Lakota culture who, in 1972, defied religious prohibitions to help reintroduce the Sun Dance. He also has worked to preserve the victory songs from the Battle of the Little Bighorn and, after 20 years of training and promotion, successfully brought back a traditional Lakota game thought lost to assimilation.

What you won’t get on a Go Native America tour is an ego-tripped oration about how Natives can do no wrong. Chapman possesses an uncanny knack for describing characters in ways totally relatable in today’s terms. His stories vividly illustrate Red Cloud as a powerful motivator, a shrewd politician and a forceful negotiator, and Yellow Wolf as an ingenious international trade leader whose abilities would rival any political or corporate powerhouse on the scene today.

The scenes of modern reservation life stand in stark contrast to the untouched beauty of the lands surrounding them. Poverty, addiction and suicide rates are far greater among America’s indigenous peoples than among any other group living within the nation’s borders today. Several in my tour group bought hand-beaded necklaces from three women who lived, along with 14 others, in a two-bedroom mobile home near Wounded Knee — a small but appreciated gesture followed by vows to do more to help.

Perhaps it’s the heartbreaking histories and the ongoing hardships that make us all better appreciate the immeasurable value of the lands that Native Americans hold in such reverence. Nowhere is that more evident than the place where our tour group spent its last day — Tongue River Canyon. Here, Crazy Horse would find respite for days at the time, among the brilliant colors of the foliage and the lullaby-like sounds of the stream. It is a scene indescribable — like stepping into a painting, and, like Crazy Horse himself and those who lived, loved and fought alongside him, beautiful.

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