Going tribal in the Badlands

A family-owned business educates travelers about the Native American nations within our borders.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)

Going tribal in the Badlands Going tribal in the Badlands Going tribal in the Badlands
On trips through the High Plains, a family-owned business educates travelers about the Native American nations within our borders. Photographs by Brad Swonetz.
Traveling in Native America Traveling in Native America Traveling in Native America
Get in touch with America's past with offerings from these small businesses owned by tribal members.

BILLINGS, MONT. (Fortune Small Business) -- Sitting at a pink formica table in the breakfast room of a Howard Johnson in Spearfish, S.D., my expectations are low.

The cottage-cheese ceiling and cheaply framed bird prints do not portend a magical experience. To my right, a sign beside the coffeemaker urges patrons to "refrain from taking food and beverage out of the breakfast room." But my traveling companions and I aren't here to filch boxes of Frosted Flakes. We're waiting for Sequoia Crosswhite, a 30-year-old Lakota musician who works for Go Native America (GNA), a travel firm based in Billings, Mont. I am part of their Wisdom Keepers tour group, here to see the High Plains from a Native American perspective, and this inauspicious HoJo is simply the most convenient spot for us to gather.

I hear ankle bells, then see Crosswhite enter the breakfast room in full native dress - from beaded moccasins to porcupine quill headdress. As he sets up his turntables, I brace for a blast of ethnic kitsch. But that's not what happens. Instead, we listen as Crosswhite, a former gang member who now works with homeless children, explains how he found direction in music and the traditions of his people. When he starts rapping "Outlaw Stand," which he wrote about life on the reservation, I am transported from our bland surroundings to a very different world. Recorded on a four-track tape recorder, the song features a slide guitar and ragtime piano, which give it an Old West sound, as well as bits of the Lakota language.

Three days later I'm walking in single file behind GNA co-owner Serle Chapman, treading warily up a steep cliff 30 miles outside Thermopolis, Wyo. Chapman, 42, is a Native American historian who belongs to both the Cheyenne and Kalderas Nations and is also a descendant of the frontier scout Amos Chapman. He tosses stones into the brush to warn rattlesnakes that our group is coming. I push through the mesquite and prickly pear that crowd the trail and hope for the best.

We are bound for the Legend Rock Petroglyph Site, a towering boulder that Native Americans call Creation Rock. At the top of the ridge we come face-to-face with a parade of etchings - human and animal figures that remind me of the illustrations in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are - pecked into the red rock face.

The drawings come alive as Chapman, who owns GNA with his wife, Sarah, tells a creation story. It begins with the Ancient One, a deity with both male and female characteristics. Alone on earth, the Ancient One asks the Creator for some company. So the Creator sends a turtle, which signifies that life emerged from the sea. The Ancient One and the turtle are depicted, side by side, on the rock.

"These images speak to the origins of our people," says Chapman, referring to the Cheyenne part of his heritage. Carbon dating indicates that the drawings are about 2,000 years old.

We are halfway into GNA's 10-day trip, putting serious mileage on a rented Chevy Suburban as we ramble through Lakota and Cheyenne Nation lands in Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. The petroglyphs are one stop on a tour that combines elements of a wildlife safari, a cultural immersion, a history lesson and a briefing on current Native American affairs - all against the backdrop of the Big Horn Mountains, the Badlands and the Black Hills. My traveling companions are Jeanette Sassoon and her partner, Gary Fellers, owners of Polo Gear, a Wellington, Fla.-based firm that makes equipment and clothing for polo players; and the Griffith-David family - Danny, Gretchen and their 17-year-old son, Morgan, who have come from Wales.

The trip isn't run like a group tour; I feel more like a foreign-exchange student on the road with a host family. There is no rigid itinerary, which initially irks some type A visitors. The remedy for them: "If we see someone isn't adapting to Indian Time, we'll just tell them to take off their watch," says Sarah Chapman, 44.

On my first day in the van, her husband starts by announcing a Red Sox baseball game score. Raised internationally, he seems an unlikely Sox fan. His explanation: "If Indians had a baseball team, it would be the Red Sox because of their many trials and tribulations."

We gather near a lake in the shadow of Bear Butte, a bear-shaped outcropping of igneous rock that many Indian nations hold sacred. There we meet Ernie LaPointe, a GNA guide and the great-grandson of Lakota holy man Sitting Bull. All of the firm's guides are Native American, and the Chapmans say their wages are more than four times higher than the industry standard. The company hopes to make fair-trade tourism the norm in Indian country.

LaPointe, 60, explains that 405 spirits dwell at this mountain. When you die, he says, it takes four days to journey to the spirit world via the Milky Way.

QMy dream is to launch my own business someday. Now that it's time to choose a major, I'm debating if I should major in entrepreneurial studies or major in engineering to acquire a set of skills first. Is majoring in entrepreneurship a good choice? More
Get Answer
- Spate, Orange, Calif.

More Galleries
10 of the most luxurious airline amenity kits When it comes to in-flight pampering, the amenity kits offered by these 10 airlines are the ultimate in luxury More
7 startups that want to improve your mental health From a text therapy platform to apps that push you reminders to breathe, these self-care startups offer help on a daily basis or in times of need. More
5 radical technologies that will change how you get to work From Uber's flying cars to the Hyperloop, these are some of the neatest transportation concepts in the works today. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.