THE Dakotas are the land of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, of adventurous fur traders and trappers, and of pioneers like author Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. Here, in these vast grasslands, buffalo still roam the sacred ground of South Dakota's Black Hills, and the pinnacles and ravines of the Badlands, stretching across both North and South Dakota, continue to be sculpted by water, wind, and time. During the hot, dry summers, visitors attend rodeos, wild west shows, and Indian Pow-wows, and enjoy the uncrowded natural beauty of the area's state and national parks. They hike, camp, hunt, fish and horseback ride, and on North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, the largest man-made lake in the US, they even enjoy boating and water sports. Some hardy souls even enjoy Dakota winter vacations, snow-mobiling, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. Throughout the Dakotas, gamblers can try their luck at casinos operated by native Americans on their reservations. Deadwood, South Dakota, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed during a poker game, offers legalised gambling, bringing back the feeling of the frontier and the gold rush days of 1876. When people think of the Dakotas, they imagine vast undulating prairies, brilliant sunsets, and Kevin Costner's epic western Dances with Wolves. Two South Dakota ranches, the Olson and the McNenny, both near Rapid City, were used during the filming of the movie and now offer tours. The buffalo hunt was shot at the 60,000-acre Triple U Ranch, home to 3,000 buffalo, the largest privately-owned herd in the world. Though bridles and reins are seen on the horses during the buffalo hunt, Native Americans were highly trained horsemen, and actually guided horses only with their legs and by shifting their weight in the saddle. Special park units of the Badlands are in both states; in South Dakota, Badlands National Park, is southwest of Rapid City; in North Dakota, units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, are north and south of Medora. The future President first came to the Badlands in 1883. While ranching here in the Badlands, once the playground of the dinosaur, he witnessed the destruction caused by over-grazing, and even the destruction of some big game species. Later, when he became President he helped to established five national parks, many wildlife refuges, and several national forests. The Sioux named the Badlands ''make sica'' (land bad), but this is an area that is home to a variety of creatures and plants. In the Badlands today, largely because of Teddy Roosevelt, there can be found 50 different grasses, almost 200 kinds of wildflowers, and a multitude of wildlife, including bison, pronghorn antelope, mule and whitetail deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, jack rabbits, bighorn sheep, badgers, owls, eagles, and hawks. The Badlands parks, open year round, have visitor centres interpreting the area's natural and cultural history, with special summer programmes by naturalists. Particularly in the north unit in North Dakota, visitors often drive the entire length of the park and see only a handful of cars. If hiking in the area, they might go all day without seeing anyone. By contrast, South Dakota's Black Hills are crowded with more than two million visitors a year, coming to see Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills are covered with ponderosa pine and blue spruce, giving the impression from a distance that they are black. The Centennial Trail, a 180-kilometre hiking trail, goes from Bear Butte in the north, to Wind Cave in the south, along the western edge of the state. Other attractions drawing visitors to the Black Hills is the Passion Play, moved here from Germany in 1939, and the gargantuan 563-foot Crazy Horse Memorial, carved out of a mountain, not far from Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse, who led the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn, was not a chief, but a respected holy man. He never surrendered, never signed a treaty, and never went on a reservation. Also to be found in these Black Hills, is the Homestake Gold Mine, one of the largest producing gold mines in the Western Hemisphere. It was the 1874 exploratory expedition by General George Custer that led to the discovery of gold in these hills. Settlers poured in and towns sprang up, leading to open hostility by the Indians. Just two years later, in 1876, Custer's attempt to subdue the Indians would end at Little Bighorn. Long before the Battle of Little Bighorn, native Americans and Europeans were living in close proximity and trading peacefully. Because there were no European or white women at these trading forts, French, Scottish, and English fur traders took Indian women as their wives. In time this led to the development of a new 'mixed'' race, called the Metis. They identified with neither the whites nor the Indians, but did have an economy based on buffalo hunts and the fur trade. Often they adopted Christianity, the French Metis being so devout, they always insisted a priest accompany them on their buffalo hunts. At North Dakota's Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, you can canoe down the river to 300-year-old ruins of villages built by the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. These were farmers and traders who lived in semi-permanent earth lodges, 20-30 metres in diameter and two-three metres high. Built and owned by women, the lodges could hold as many as 20 people. If you can't take a canoe ride, you can request a guided tour of the village sites to see earth lodge depressions, cache pits, and fortification ditches, dating back 3,500 years. Here, the women spent long hours gardening, in addition to procuring firewood and water, cooking the food, and caring for the children. The men made tools, cared for the horses, provided meat from the hunt, and protected and defended the village during warfare. Knife River flint, quarried locally, was perhaps America's first export. Once traded, it found its way all across the continent. Evidence shows Knife River flint in South Carolina, New Mexico, and Hudson Bay at the time of Christ. Today, descendants of these villages live nearby on the Fort Berthold Reservation, practising their traditional ways. For them, the land at Knife River where their ancestors lived, is hallowed ground. Anne Hattes visits America's legendary Indian country, where Custer made his last stand, Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down, and Kevin Costner rode with buffalo. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial was carved between 1927 and 1941 with the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Thousands of buffalo are bred at ranches in the Dakotas.