This story has been updated to the correct spelling of Sarah Kills In Water.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A new tourism initiative in South Dakota will share the culture of the nine Native American tribes in their words, in their stories.

“It’s important for us to tell our story. To tell our truth,” said Sarah Kills In Water, a grant writer with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Sicangu Resource Development.

The first tour bus focused on Native American Cultural tourism will visit three American Indian Reservations in South Dakota next week.

The tour will be the first of several this summer. Kills In Water, along with others involved, believes it will be the start of growing cultural tourism on the tribal lands with the intent to share authentic Lakota stories.

Kills In Water is one of the partners in the new South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance (SDNTA), a group established to develop authentic Native American cultural tourism experiences for visitors. The South Dakota Department of Tourism has been helping with the development of the SDNTA. Native Tourism was one of the niche areas of development identified by the South Dakota Department of Tourism in 2017.

When the SD Tourism started working with tribal leaders several years ago, it became apparent, “They were looking for opportunities to share their stories, to have their voices heard,” said Calvin Bloemendaal of the tourism department.

Cultural tourism is a growing niche in the tourism industry. Tourists want to learn about specific cultures which includes learning about a culture’s history, art, landscape and other topics.

“Visitors want to experience something authentic, and it’s only authentic if it comes from the tribes themselves,” Bloemendaal said.

“That’s the big thing with the collaborative, how we’re marketing to visitors that want to experience a Native American cultural experience,” said Ivan Sorbel the executive director the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce.

South Dakota Department of Tourism photo

According to Travel and Tour World, the global cultural tourism market will reach $5.9 million in the U.S. this year. Industry analysts expect the market to continue to steadily grow in the future.

“I think the demand is growing,” Bloemendaal said. There has also been strong interest in native cultural tourism in South Dakota, but, “there hasn’t been the tourism capacity to meet the demand.”

Cultural preservation through tourism is an incentive but tribal partners also know there will be an economic impact in their communities.

Overall, tourism had a $7.6 billion economic impact in the state in 2022, according to state tourism.

“We want to use the collaborative to engage with other tribes, to raise their level of capacity, to have the benefits that South Dakota is enjoying in the tourism industry. Basically, we just want a piece of that pie,” Sorbel said.

To Kills In Water, cultural tourism can be a “revitalization of our culture and language through tourism, but I also see the financial opportunity.”

She envisions tribal members being able to sell their art and other handwork to visitors. There are also opportunities to start businesses that can serve tourists, Kills In Water said.

“While some of the impact may be small now, we are just starting to chip away at the opportunities that are here,” Kills In Water said.

The youth at the Lakota Youth Development center on the Rosebud Reservation in south central South Dakota already operate a bee and honey business. Executive director Marla Bull Bear sees significant opportunities in cultural tourism for her youth.

The youth have been training in hospitality including being hosts to several tourism test tours in the past year, Bull Bear said.

Cultural tourism can increase the summer job opportunities for youth while building confidence in their skills and pride in their heritage, Bull Bear said.

The state will help SDNTA to market cultural experiences to prospective tourists. It connected the SDNTA to the upcoming tour company.

Overcoming skepticism to the idea

“There has been some pushback to tourism in general on tribal lands,” Bloemendaal said.

The SDNTA and the state’s help has created some misunderstanding on the structure of the program, he said.

Bloemendaal said some tribal members didn’t understand the program was led by the tribes. “Once people understand the initiative, the push back goes away,” he said.

Kills In Water said when Gov. Kristi Noem announced the native cultural tourism program in her January State of the State speech, some of her tribal members and leaders were not happy. But Kills In Water said she explained the program and about how tribal partners led the process and determined the tour agenda, they understood.

Participants in Native American Day in Sioux Falls in 2022.

The SDNTA and the upcoming bus tour would not have happened without the help from state tourism department, Kills In Water said.

Determining what to share while helping to preserve the culture

“Each tribe and each community has to make decisions themselves about what is sacred and what can’t be shared,” Bull Bear said.

It’s important “share some, not all, of our cultural aspects. Some things are not appropriate to share with our visitors. We want to share what is appropriate for visitors,” Sorbel said.

Kills In Water said she’s had to work through concerns some tribal leaders and members had about what to share with tourists.

“We will be telling things that our leadership has said is safe to share,” Kills In Water said.

“It’s always important to tell our history from our point of view,” Sorbel said. “The history of the Lakota people in South Dakota, it’s a violent history, it’s not pretty. But a lot of United States History is not pretty. We want to talk about our experiences that Lakota people have had over the past two centuries in this area.”

The stories of how Lakota survived, thrived and strive to prosper in contemporary society, he said.

Teaching Lakota heritage is one of the focuses of the Lakota Youth Development, and now, cultural tourism can build more pride in youth as they learn others are interested in the culture, Bull Bear said.

She’s seen that pride and confidence grow as youth served in hospitality roles in test tours that visited Lakota Youth Development during the past year.

“One of the most beautiful…outcomes is the revitalization of our culture in getting our youth involved,” Kills In Water. “They are going to be the ambassadors.”

Training and the future

The SDNTA and its partners have spent at least two years preparing for next week’s tour.

“There’s been a multitude of training,” Kills In Water said.

Training partners have included lack Hills State University, South Dakota State University and George Washington University. South Dakota Tourism partnered with George Washington University International Institute of Tourism Studies in 2018 to establish the SDNTA.


Tribal partners were trained about identifying their own cultural items or sites of significance to share on the tour. Tour guides were identified and trained in how to deal with any language barriers and how to be prepared for the unknown, Kills In Water said.

“That kind of support means everything to us,” Bull Bear said.

Tourism at Pine Ridge is more advanced than other tribal lands in South Dakota, Sorbel said.
“For Pine Ridge, it’s not a new deal. We’ve been actively promoting tourism for the last couple of decades for sure.”

“Absolutely, the new partnership increases our profile,” Sorbel said. The SDNTA and partnerships will help market all participating tribal communities, Sorbel said.

The alliance will also help tribal communities increase their capacity to handle more tourism.

If Rosebud communities will want more bus tours or general tourists seeking cultural experiences but increases must be in steps, Kills In Water said. But communities need to decide if they would want more tours.

The communities would need to be able to dispose of increased trash and increased waste matter for example, to handle increases in tourism, she said.

Bull Bear envisions the Lakota Youth Center being busy year round with tourists who want to stay in its facility or make a shorter stop to learn about the culture.

Sorbel said capacity for tourism has increased at Pine Ridge since a tribal member built the first motel in 2005. The reservation had culturally significant sites but a motel spurred continued growth, he said.

Pine Ridge has the Oglala Living History Center, for example, just off Interstate 90.

The SDNTA has a website. The South Dakota Department of Tourism (Travel South Dakota) also has website pages devoted to Native American Culture in the state.