In the grandstands of Rapid City's civic center, Alain Beauchamps lets his body sway gently to the hypnotic beat of tribal drums. Below him, male dancers, arrayed in lavish eagle-feather ornaments and bone breastplates, shuffle along the auditorium floor in the symbolic salute to the sun's journey across South Dakota skies. Then, on an invitation from the master of ceremonies, the French doctor, his wife and other spectators join in the dance.
It's all standard fare at the Black Hills and Northern Plains Indian Pow Wow and Arts Exposition, an annual South Dakota event that unites Native Americans in a celebration of their enduring culture. Media exposure has succeeded in attracting wider audiences to this and other powwows across the United States and Canada. Films such as "Dances With Wolves" and "Thunderheart," both made on location in South Dakota, have also helped fuel interest in the Indian cultures. As for the Beauchamps, they decided to attend the powwow after seeing a performance of the American Indian Dance Theater during one of its regular European appearances.
Combined celebration, competition and social gathering, the July powwow -- this year's will be held next weekend -- attracts members of nearly 100 tribes from across the United States and Canada for three days of dancing, singing, drumming and a chance to win some $30,000 in cash prizes. Native-American participants vie for titles in a dozen categories that include dancing, athletic endurance, a traditional dance for older men and the graceful jingle and shawl dances for women. Children 8 and under can also take part in their own categories. Drumming and singing groups accompany the performers, and also compete for prizes.
Because appearance is a crucial factor in the judging, powwow competitors go to great lengths to perfect their costumes, often investing thousands of dollars in a single piece of clothing. Jingle dancers, for example, attach multiple rows of rolled metal tobacco lids to their outfits to produce a soft rattling sound as they move across the floor. Elaborately outfitted shawl dancers don fringed wraps over exquisitely beaded dresses, leggings and moccasins to accentuate the lively twirling and prancing movements that are part of their performance. Contestants in senior divisions emulate the fashion of their forefathers with carefully re-created copies of cherished original garments passed down from earlier generations.
The heart of a powwow celebration may be its dance events, but there are other activities as well -- fashion shows, food sampling and a crafts exhibition. Traders come to the Rapid City get-together to sell Native-American wares, from pottery, beadwork and paintings to rare antique baskets and T-shirts. There is also quill-work -- jewelry, belts and other adornments painstakingly fashioned from porcupine quills. Quill-work is one of the oldest art forms in North America and unique to the Plains Indians.
The Native-American spirit permeates this rural corner of the United States and no more so than around the spectacular, million-acre Black Hills National Forest, which harbors four extensive parks. Here, pine and spruce-covered mountains attain heights exceeding 7,000 feet above sea level. After a visit to the dramatic cluster of granite spires known as the Needles in the northwestern corner of Custer State Park, it's easy to see why these hills have been venerated by various tribes.
Today the Black Hills welcomes sightseers for a look at its mountains and meadows, varied wildlife and pristine lakes and streams -- accessible by way of a first-class network of roads and highways. For sports enthusiasts, there's hiking, horseback riding, camping and fishing for trout, bass or perch. Winter months bring skiers and snowmobiling fans. Of its many wonders, however, the No. 1 crowd-pleaser remains Mount Rushmore. Its 60-foot-tall depictions of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are the work of Danish-American artist Gutzon Borglum, who did his sculpting with the help of dynamite.
About 17 miles from Mount Rushmore is the emerging Crazy Horse Memorial, a tribute to the Sioux warrior who led the charge against Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn. The work-in-progress features the chief's silhouetted figure astride a spirited horse, his arms outstretched toward the sacred Black Hills. Polish-American Korczak Ziolkowski undertook the project in the late 1940s at the request of Lakota chief Standing Bear. Today, the sculptor's widow, Ruth, supervises the colossal operation with help from the couple's children.
Ziolkowski began work with a simple jackhammer. Today computers are used for calculating exact blasting measurements. While the chief's resolute nine-story-high face is slated for completion by the year 2000, many more years of work will be needed to bring the entire 563-by-641-foot sculpture through its final phases. Still, with each passing year, the Indian leader emerges from the granite mountaintop with greater clarity, drawing more than a million visitors and continuing media coverage.
For an admission fee, the work can be viewed at a visitor's complex a mile from the drilling and blasting. If all goes according to plan, surrounding property will one day boast a North American Indian university and medical school. The facility's cultural component already features a museum dedicated to the North American Indian. Another wing is devoted to the sculptor himself. Open year-round, except Christmas, the memorial receives most of its visitors during the warm summer months.
RAPID CITY SIGHTS
A former frontier settlement, Rapid City is the ideal base for exploring Black Hills country and its environs, including Custer State Park (30 miles away), Crazy Horse Memorial (37 miles away) and Badlands National Park (50 miles away).
Rapid City's population is about 65,000, making it South Dakota's second largest city, but with its mostly low-rise buildings and light traffic, the feeling is still small-town.
The historic downtown district, with its wide, tree-lined streets, served as a supply center for gold miners a century ago. Extensive renovations of its handsome brick and locally quarried stone buildings have infused new life into the area. Bookstores, galleries, cafes and restaurants make it a nice spot for strolling, browsing and dining.
Not to be missed is the Sioux Indian Museum located on West Boulevard in a vintage stone complex and surrounded by its own park and rose garden. Craft exhibits feature a range of historic and contemporary works by Native-American artists, while an adjoining gift shop showcases bead and quill-work, baskets, silver jewelry and other handcrafted articles. The same building houses the Pioneer Museum, with period furniture, clothing and other memorabilia.
IF YOU GO . . .
The Black Hills and Northern Plains Indian Powwow and Exposition takes place next weekend in Rapid City. Other area powwows include the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Powwow July 15-17 in Flandreau; the Crow Creek Annual Powwow at Fort Thompson in August; and the Rosebud Powwow in Rosebud, also in August.
For more information, write South Dakota Tourism, 711 E. Wells Ave., Pierre, S.D. 57501, or call (800) 732-5682.