Spirit Mound

A blue sky with wispy white clouds over a field of brown grass. A gravel path leads up into the photo that lead any visitor to the summit of Spirit Mound.
Spirit Mound, famous for a visit from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, is held sacred by several Native American tribes

NPS / Daniel Peterson


Spirit Mound, approximately 8 miles north of Vermillion on South Dakota Route 19, is a natural hill that rises from a plain covered by glacial till. From a geological perspective, it is a remnant of bedrock forming a knob from the lower part of the Niobrara Chalk not eroded away by Ice Age glaciers.

Diverse Meanings - Diverse Cultures
Spirit Mound has taken on a variety of cultural meanings that reflect the beliefs of the diverse peoples that make up the American population. It is an important point of contact between the American Indians and Euro-Americans. It exemplifies a sometimes uneasy fusion of these two major cultural traditions.

Lewis & Clark Expedition - Investigating A Mystery
For most people, it is a location associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On August 25, 1804, the two captains and several other members of the expedition journeyed north from the Missouri River to explore a "mysterious hill," known today as Spirit Mound and Can O'ti la Paha. Lewis and Clark had heard stories of Spirit Mound from the Otoes, Missouria, Omaha, and others. After a hot and thirsty journey, they topped the hill and saw, for the first time, a panoramic view of the Great Plains. They "discovered" the Great Plains, the grasslands and relatively treeless prairie inhabited by large herds of bison and elk. Lewis and Clark chose to journey to Spirit Mound so that they might understand why the Indians revered this location.

Native Meanings - The Mandan
For American Indians, Spirit Mound is both physical location and spiritual place, a place of contact between the natural and the supernatural world. The sacred Turtle Drums of the Mandan were created at Spirit Mound. At Spirit Mound, Lone Man saved the Mandans' ancestors from a great flood. The first shrine built to commemorate Lone Man's saving the Mandan was built at Spirit Mound.

Native Meanings - Yankton (Sioux)
For the Yankton (Sioux), Spirit Mound is associated with the Can O'ti na, Little Tree Dwellers/Little People. Long ago two tribes battled to a stalemate. They both sought help from the spirits at Spirit Mound. They tried to manipulate the spirits for their own purposes. Their manipulation failed, but it brought two types of spirits into this world. The larger Spirits moved west to become Sasquatch, but the Can O'ti na stayed in the area and can still be seen there today.

Native Meanings - Lakota (Sioux)
In Lakota (Sioux) tradition, Spirit Mound is also associated with the Can O'ti la. In the distant past, Iktomi (Trickster) persuaded the Raccoon people to try to change their nature. The Can O'ti la are descendants of two modified Raccoon children. As the Can O'ti la grew, they walked upright and used their paws like hands. They also became mischievous and played tricks on men. Men were led astray and sometimes died. Later in time at Spirit Mound, the Can O'ti la were transformed into spirit helpers of men. Spirit Mound is the origin point for the Wo'piye Can O'ti la, the Little Tree Dweller's Medicine Bundle. This medicine bundle is still in use today by the Lakota of the Dakotas and Nebraska.

This coming together of the American Indians and Euro-American peoples had a downside. At Spirit Mound, the Winged One predicted that the Can O'ti la would be forced away from Spirit Mound when the true children (European-Americans) of the trickster Iktomi arrived. For some, Lewis & Clark's visit to Spirit Mound marks the beginning of the end of Lakota traditional lifeways.

Protection, Preservation & Restoration - Since 2002
The State of South Dakota, with the assistance of the National Park Service and the Spirit Mound Trust, purchased the 160-acre tract in 2002 and removed all traces of an existing cattle feedlot and associated outbuildings. The intention has been to restore the site to the prairie landscape that Lewis and Clark saw over 200 years ago. Today Spirit Mound Historic Prairie is a prairie restoration project work in progress. A walking trail leads to the top of Spirit Mound so that you may orient yourself on the vast landscape of the Great Plains.

Last updated: April 20, 2020

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