OGLALA -- Just a stone's throw from the new $20 million Prairie Wind Casino, Hotel & Restaurant stands a reminder of just how far the Oglala Sioux Tribe's gaming business has come in 13 years.
The original Prairie Wind Casino -- three ramshackle doublewide trailers that opened as a gaming hall in 1994 -- stands on wheels in a vacant lot. In another corner is the casino's second home, a tent-like dome structure that housed the casino from 1998 until March of this year.
Both structures are dwarfed by the sprawling new complex. The 47,000-square-foot casino has been operating more than a month. The adjoining 35,000-square-foot hotel and convention center is scheduled to open within a matter of weeks.
"We finally got a permanent home, and it's a permanent home we can be proud of," said Lupe Hudspeth, Prairie Wind's marketing manager.
In many ways, the new Prairie Wind Casino, Hotel & Restaurant puts the Oglala Sioux Tribe in the same league with Deadwood's gaming venues and the other seven tribal casinos in South Dakota. That's because for the first time, gamblers will be able to stay overnight at Prairie Wind.
Prairie Wind's isolated location -- along U.S. Highway 18 halfway between Oelrichs and Oglala -- and its lack of overnight facilities has limited the casino's marketing reach. It has mostly been a day-trip destination for gamblers from the Nebraska Panhandle, southwestern South Dakota and southeastern Wyoming.
The hotel could help the Oglala economy in another way as well. It will give families and tourists who don't gamble an entree to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The reservation's rolling hills and wooded bluffs offer some of the most scenic vistas in South Dakota. Hiking, biking, hunting and outdoor recreation could become a big draw on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
And there's a great deal of interest, especially among Europeans, in Lakota history and culture. The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Wounded Knee Memorial and Chief Red Cloud's grave. It's also home to living descendants of famed Lakota leaders.
But the reservation has long been hampered by a lack of easy-to-find lodging and dining. There are bed-and-breakfast inns, campgrounds and restaurants scattered around the reservation, but most are small and not well known.
Some of the exceptions include the big Badlands Ranch & Resort, which overlooks the White River near Interior, and the new Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort motel, restaurant and campground near Kyle.
Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort, which opened in 2005 when the Stables Motel in Rapid City was moved to Kyle, has been doing well. This year it's adding camping cabins and shower facilities. Later plans call for recreational vehicle spaces.
But Sorbel said the Prairie Wind Hotel facility will indeed be a boost to the reservation's efforts to develop as a tourism destination. "We need the space," he said.
In fact, Sorbel has been trying to arrange accommodations this spring for a student group of 48 people from Oklahoma who want to see the Pine Ridge Reservation. They want to stay in motel rooms, and the reservation simply doesn't have that many rooms. He's finding rooms for the group in Martin, Kadoka or Hot Springs.
After the new hotel opens, tourists will be able to use Prairie Wind as a jumping-off point for day trips to other parts of the reservation.
And Prairie Wind's accommodations are fairly upscale. They include:
-- 78 guestrooms, including seven suites with hot tubs.
-- An indoor swimming pool with a separate hot tub.
-- An exercise room.
-- Arcade room.
-- A gift shop.
-- A convention center large enough to seat 300 people.
The convention center could help keep some reservation money on the reservation. Tribal government and federal agencies frequently host regional conferences in Rapid City. Now they will be able to host them much closer to home.
Hudspeth said the casino staff moved all the slot machines, tables and other fixtures into the new casino on March 21. Casino officials have plans for the now-vacant dome, possibly turning it into an entertainment venue. It could house music concerts, boxing events or conventions, she said.
One thing that Prairie Wind Casino does not have is alcohol. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a dry reservation, which means alcohol is illegal within its boundaries.
It's hard to tell whether the no-alcohol policy hurts business. Many of its competitors in Deadwood and at tribal casinos across South Dakota do serve alcoholic beverages. Video lottery casinos in Rapid City all serve beer, but mostly because a beer license is a prerequisite for having video lottery.
Hudspeth said there was some discussion in Oglala Sioux Tribe government about making an exception to the alcohol ban to allow drinks to be served at the casino. But the idea was voted down.
"We actually get a lot of compliments for not having alcohol," she said.
Smoking and gambling, however, do seem to go hand-in-glove for some regular players. Prairie Wind has set aside smoking and non-smoking areas in the casino. The restaurant is also non-smoking.
The casino is a Class III gaming establishment under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. It has 250 slot machines, blackjack tables and poker tables with no-limit Texas Hold 'Em.
Currently, Prairie Wind employs 214 people. When the hotel is up and running, the facility will provide 250 jobs. That's a big impact on the reservation economy.
Most of the workers are enrolled tribal members who live on the reservation. Workers come from as far away as Wanblee 100 miles east. The casino operates shuttle buses to carry workers from various reservation communities to their casino jobs. A handful of workers commute from as far as Rapid City and Chadron, Neb.
Jobs are hard to come by on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the fall, most reservation economies in South Dakota struggle.
Casino gambling has been a huge -- but uneven -- economic boost to American Indian tribes across the United States. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 made it legal for tribes to launch gaming ventures ranging from bingo halls and pull tabs to full-blown, Las Vegas- and Atlantic City-style casinos.
Some tribal casinos, notably the giant Foxwoods Casino in New York State, are actually bigger than some Las Vegas casinos. Others, in isolated parts of the United States, have had a much harder row to hoe.
Except for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, all South Dakota Indian tribes have some sort of casino gaming. In all, there are seven casinos. And those closer to populated areas have been more successful.
The Flandreau Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe in eastern South Dakota have large casinos. In fact, Sisseton-Wahpeton has two casinos.
CLICK HERE to view video from the new casino.
Contact Dan Daly at 394-8421 or firstname.lastname@example.org