Before there was a South Dakota Department of Tourism, there was the Singing Tribe of Wahoo.
Founded more than 70 years ago by Rapid City business leaders, the Singing Tribe of Wahoo was an early Black Hills tourism organization that used Native American themes and Western hospitality to promote the area. It is disbanding this year, having outlived its original purpose -- as well as its 1950s- era sensibilities - by several decades, say the club's second-generation members.
"The idea of Wahoo was to promote the Hills before we had all these public/private partnerships to do it," said Michael DeMersseman, a Rapid City attorney whose father, Bert, was longtime manager of Hotel Alex Johnson and a charter member of Wahoo. "But the days when a bunch of white guys could dress up in Indian headdresses is over."
Wahoo formed in 1939 to host travel writers from national magazines and major newspapers. Writers and editors for Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and many more publications visited the Black Hills, wrote glowing travel accounts of the area and got inducted into Wahoo in the process.
Local Wahoo members donned authentic Lakota regalia and used traditional items including buffalo hide tipis and ceremonial pipes during "initiation" ceremonies held for their visitors, all in a well-intentioned effort to promote tourism using Lakota culture.
"You couldn't do that today, but back then, no one complained," said Ruth Brennan of Rapid City, a club member who tracked down Wahoo costumes and memorabilia that were scattered over the years for donation to The Journey Museum's Sioux Indian Collection.
Brennan, DeMersseman and Eileen Fleishacker, another second-generation Wahoo member, are among those overseeing the end of the Wahoo era.
Fleishacker's parents, Pat and Edith Dixon, were enthusiastic Wahoo members.
"As a kid, I can remember getting shuffled off to my grandmother's for two weeks every year, because it was travel tour," Fleishacker said. "They would wine and dine travel writers for a couple of weeks."
Pat Dixon was the second director of the state's Highway Publicity Department, the precursor of today's Department of Tourism. Edith Dixon worked as secretary to the department's first director, A.H. Pankow, while her husband served in World War II. Pankow, Fleishacker said, was the marketing genius behind Wahoo.
A few Rapid City promoters informally launched Wahoo in 1938 as a memorable send-off to a group of travel writers who had been staying at Hotel Alex Johnson. The group was led by many of the deans of the Black Hills tourism industry: Earl Brockelsby, Kay Steuerwald, John Honerkamp, Hoadley Dean, and Helen and Bud Duhamel. They partnered with Pankow to implement his plan to leverage a tiny advertising budget into an effective national media campaign for the Black Hills based on free publicity purchased with Western hospitality.
"He did this by inviting media people to South Dakota to partake of our Western hospitality, natural beauty and numerous attractions," she said. "Those writers went back to their media outlets and wrote glowing reports of the beautiful country, the warm and friendly people and the wonderful experience they had in South Dakota."
Eventually, Wahoo membership topped 2,000 people. Local members include a who's who of prominent Black Hills business names over the past seven decades: Web Hill, Les Plowman, Tom Lane, Stan Adelstein, Milo Rypkema, Chuck Lien, Ted Hustead, as well as Rapid City Journal editors Ed Lighter, Jack Cannon and Jim Kuehn.
By the 1960s and '70s, Wahoo's focus turned to Hollywood celebrities in order to garner media attention for South Dakota tourism. The fledgling movie and television industry was increasingly choosing the Black Hills as a filming location, and Wahoo capitalized on it.
Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Yvonne DiCarlo, George Peppard, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Rock Hudson were just a few of Wahoo's famous inductees. James Arness and Ken Curtis of "Gunsmoke" fame were inducted, as were Mickey Mouse and the entire cast of Walt Disney's "The One and Only, Genuine, Original, Family Band," which was based on a Laura Bower Van Nuys' book and had its film premiere in Rapid City.
Military dignitaries, including Gen. "Jimmy" Doolittle, Gen. Hap Arnold and every Ellsworth Air Force Base commander, were initiated into Wahoo. So was astronaut Frank Borman. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the highest ranking politician ever to belong, but there were many others of every political stripe -- from Sen. Karl Mundt to Sen. George McGovern. Most of the state's governors and many of its congressional members were made Wahoo members.
But Wahoo's initiation activities gradually declined as the tourism industry came to recognize the value of using professional expertise to market Black Hills tourism. Wahoo volunteers were gradually replaced by public relations firms and advertising specialists through the creation of entities such as the Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau or the Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association.
"It really didn't have a function after the rise of other tourism organizations," said Brennan, citing events such as the governor's invitational pheasant hunt and the Custer State Park buffalo roundup, both of which serve tourism and economic development purposes.
The advent of Native American advocacy groups in the 1970s, along with growing cultural sensitivities, also spelled the end of many colorful Wahoo traditions, including its Native American regalia theme. In its heyday, the group had several Native American members, including the Rev. Webster Two Hawk and the late Harold Shunk and Jim Emery.
Those men lent legitimacy to the group's Prayer to the Four Winds, often reciting it in the Lakota language while others translated it into English. Wahoo had an official Lakota "password" to be memorized for induction. Translated into English, it reads: "The Black Hills of South Dakota is the best damn place in the world to live."
While Wahoo members said ceremonies were intended to honor the Lakota association with the Black Hills, not to belittle it, Native American advocate Rosalie Little Thunder said the appropriation of the culture's material objects without a corresponding understanding of its spiritual and moral values was, at best, naive and inappropriate.
"My father used to say that ignorance and arrogance was not a good mix," Little Thunder said.
Little Thunder, an instructor at Black Hills State University's American Indian Studies Center, had never heard of the Singing Tribe of Wahoo, but she recalls a "certain level of discomfort and a kind of resignation" from Native people of that era. "I still remember my mother saying, ‘Don't say anything.' But I heard the discomfort. I heard, ‘Look what they're doing,'" Little Thunder said. "We're a lot noisier now."
"I think it's a necessary thing," Fleishacker said of Wahoo's dissolution. But she defends the organization, which she said was always about promoting hospitality and friendship, against charges of racial insensitivity.
"I don't think it was," she said. "I think perhaps there was less animosity between racial groups back then. They had a different relationship and, I sometimes think, a more comfortable relationship."
Fleishacker said that Wahoo chose to gift a variety of charitable organizations that benefit Native Americans with its financial resources over the years.
Eventually, Wahoo settled into life as a social club, meeting sporadically in the past three decades. Most recently, there has been only an annual Christmas party and, in 2009, the group voted to officially disband.
Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org