Akta Lakota Museum: An American Treasure in South Dakota

Lakota Sioux history and culture in artifacts and signage

Each year, my family heads to Montana from Ohio. On these treks across vast expanses of the United States, we pick at least one new place to visit. This year we headed into Chamberlain, South Dakota since the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center caught my eye.

Situated on the bank of the Missouri River on the grounds of the St. Joseph School, the Akta Lakota Museum offers an expansive, detailed look at the Northern Plains Indians with the main focus on Lakota Sioux history and culture. The museum was a thumbs up and well worth the brief detour (about 15 minutes) off I-90.

The artifacts and signage of the museum’s exhibits parcel out details about Lakota beliefs and traditions, as well as, the devastation that was caused by the westward expansion of European-Americans into Native American territory. The tales told are uplifting and heartbreaking, particularly as depicted by the quotes of notable chiefs like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse whose words express both their strength and their pain.

The history and the importance of the horse are a feature.
The history and the importance of the horse are a feature.

While Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the west is worth admiration, the Akta Lakota Museum does point out that their arrival in South Dakota had dire consequences later. Diseases like small pox and the almost extinction of the buffalo are part of the story of this time in American history.

Still, the over-arching message is that the Lakota Sioux culture continues to thrive as an important part of U.S. heritage and has something to teach everyone. Honoring elders and the earth, and the connection between humans and the natural world are prominent beliefs that are part of the lessons taught throughout. Spend time at the interactive display that shows which animals represent certain personality traits and you might find out the animal that most represents you.

An interactive display about the buffalo
An interactive display about the buffalo

Another interactive display features Lakota Sioux children. Child rearing practices and the differences between how girls and boys were raised in the traditional way are included. Visitors can play games common to boys and girls at each section. Other exhibits are about specific cultural traditions like the use of tobacco and pipes in ceremonies and the sacredness of the buffalo, particularly as connected to the uses of the various parts of this majestic animal. The intricacies of the bead work incorporated into clothing and footwear are also prominent features in several displays.

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Videos scattered throughout give detailed explanations as well. Along with the displays about the Lakota past are ones about the present. Current Sioux artists’ work are also on display.

The Medicine Wheel Garden of Healing
The Medicine Wheel Garden of Healing

Another part of the museum covers the past and present of the St. Joseph’s Indian School. Started as a boarding school to educate Lakota Sioux children, the school is still operating and unlike the boarding schools of the past, strives to help Native American children connect to their traditional culture and heritage. Don’t miss the Medicine Wheel Garden of Healing. Located outside the building with the Missouri River as a backdrop, the garden was created as a place of healing. A quote on the wall alludes to the pain caused by early education practices when Native American children were taken from their families in order to be assimilated into European-American ways.

As a person who loves a terrific gift shop, the one at the Akta Lakota Museum is perfect. Items range from sage to dream catchers to gorgeous jewelry and handmade Lakota star quilts. There’s something in every price range. The Collector’s Gallery features local artists’ sculptures and paintings that are for sale.

Intricate Native American bead work

If You Go:
Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center
1301 N Main St, Chamberlain, South Dakota 57325
(800) 798-3452

Post and photographs courtesy of Jamie Rhein, member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association