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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Dances with Wolves - Part 3

Updated: May 7, 2023

Scouting with Kevin Costner

Former South Dakota Film Commissioner—and my friend—Gary Keller (Photos #1 & #3 below), was once interviewed by an LA Times reporter who wrote that modern-day film scouts are like the Indian scouts of frontier lore. Both are hired to share their knowledge of the land, the weather, the flora and fauna, and the treacheries of the place. Except that in olden times, shooting was with a gun. In the film scout’s world, shooting is with a camera.

As Gary tells it, in 1987, “I had just landed the job and just moved to South Dakota, knew almost nothing about the state, and got a call from one of the biggest icons in cinema!” Kevin Costner wanted to visit South Dakota to scout possible locations for his new western project, Dances with Wolves! South Dakota was in the running against two countries and nine other states, including New Mexico and Nebraska. The original script, says Gary, was based on the Comanche tribe. But Kevin, his co-producer, Jim Wilson, and location manager, Tim Wilson, were having a hard time finding Comanche Native Americans who could speak their native tongue. And New Mexico didn’t have enough buffalo. South Dakota was very well suited for their needs; we had the largest buffalo herd in the world—3,500 head—at the Houck Ranch and many Native American actors and extras.

“It would be up to me to cinch the deal for South Dakota, to find locations that Kevin would fall in love with. No pressure!

“One of our first stops was visiting the Triple U Ranch, owned by the Houck family, to see their massive herd of buffalo (#4). (Kevin had scouted a suitable ranch in Wyoming with a big buffalo herd, but it lost out because the buffalo had ear tags.) The patriarch was rancher Roy Houck in his 70s. Kevin wanted to discuss if they could film his buffalo on his 60,000-acre ranch (about 10 miles by 20 miles long), as well as the terms. Roy was a cagey old guy who had once been a Lt. Governor of South Dakota. They struck a deal. Besides stampeding the buffalo 6 days in a row in the hot August sun, miles and miles of fences had to be removed…and then put back up after filming. But, seven Oscar Awards later, it seems to have been the right choice.

“During location scouting for the Fort Sedgewick site in the spring of 1988, I was driving Kevin, Jim and Tim to a location about 15 miles west of Ft. Pierre along the Bad River. It was a location with a big bend in the river with an old log cabin and another building. We were in the Tourism Department Suburban and the spring rains had the Bad River flowing pretty swiftly. Growing up an Iowa farm boy, I knew how to drive trucks in mud but had never crossed a river as deep as this one. The river had a rock bottom only at the crossing and dropped off. As I looked at the river, I am thinking to myself, "I'm 10 miles from the nearest ranch and I have one of the top Hollywood stars in this truck...I CANNOT get stuck in this river or my career is over!

“The guys could see I was stalling, so they started suggesting how exactly to get across this river. Kevin himself had a Suburban so he probably knew a little better than the others, but I got the sense he'd never done anything quite like this before either.

“I finally knew I couldn't wait any longer, so I dumped the truck into drive, prayed and floored it. We dropped down into the river, a wall of water hit the windshield. The Wilson boys were in the back seat with the windows open. They got soaked. And nobody had their seat belts on. The truck was bucking, wheels spinning and throwing mud and water all over the place. It seemed like an eternity but we finally reached the other side. I looked over at Kevin sitting in the passenger's seat next to me. He was staring out the window, gripping the armrests, and his face was white. Years later, I was talking to the film commissioner of Texas at a convention, recounting this story. He apparently had heard it before from Kevin. He said, “Oh! So, YOU’re the ONE!

“But the rough ride and my extensive scouting paid off. The famous scene where John Dunbar was carrying the wounded Stands with a Fist on his horse and looks down at the Lakota village on the banks of the river was shot on the Olson Ranch near Rapid City, the same ranch where they built Ft. Hayes.” (#5)

“Besides the buffalo stampede scenes, the Triple U Houck Ranch was used for a number of crucial scenes, including the beautiful sunset where the tribe in silhouette wanders away and Dunbar raises his rifle over his head. (That scene would be used in trailers and previews.) Another scene: Ft. Sedgewick outpost where Lt. Dunbar makes the unfortunate discovery of dead deer in the water he had been drinking.

“Scenes featuring the wagoneer Timmons, played by the late Robert Pastorelli, were also filmed on the ranch. While filming the scenes of the dead, skinned buffalo left by white hunters at the Ft. Hayes set near Rapid City, a Rapid City Journal reporter hiked up over a hill and walked right into the scene!

“Another crucial location was the opening scene of a Civil War battleground that was supposed to be a meadow and corn field in Tennessee. Kevin had a specific hand-drawn map of EXACTLY— and I mean EXACTLY—what kind of a meadow he needed for “St. David’s Field.” Specifically, a horseshoe creek, hills surrounding the field where General Tide would sit atop his horse watching the opening scene’s battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. And we needed a hill on the far side behind the mansion—that had to be built—where a corn crop would be located and leafy trees at the border. In order for it to be logistically efficient, this field HAD to be within a half hour’s drive of Pierre, where the crew would be housed for that scene as well as the buffalo and Ft. Sedgewick scenes on the Triple U Ranch.

“I searched high and low for weeks, sweating bullets, and finally found a ranch with a small pasture that had never been turned for crops 26 miles east of town along Medicine Creek, a mile north of the Missouri River. I took them to the location, but the setting was not exactly right. That was clear from Kevin’s silence. Then he looked at a downed tree trunk over the creek and it was like he had X-ray vision. “Come on, let’s take a look over there,” he said. So we scuttled across the log on our butts over the creek and through a small woods along the creek…and THERE IT WAS. Perfect, as if it had been waiting to be discovered the whole time! Perfect horseshoe creek, perfect hills on both sides…and the perfect meadow for the suicide ride Lt. Dunbar would take during the first few moments of the film.

“Because we were shooting in July but the battle was in the fall, the trees were spray-painted fall colors. (#6) They also had to plant a corn field, but getting corn to grow on dry, compacted South Dakota prairie was almost impossible. To get enough water, they had to secure a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a mile-long water pipeline from the Missouri River in order to grow the corn tall enough by July 1989. Before the shoot, the crew went through the field with weed killer to turn the corn brown for a fall crop. They shot the Civil War scene in six days.

“Kicking Bird’s summer camp was located on the Ken McNenny Ranch along the Belle Fourche River about 25 miles east of Sturgis. Two other location spots that were really crucial were near Spearfish Canyon: the rocky river of Spearfish (#7) that would be the location of Kicking Bird’s Lakota winter village and the rocky cliffs of Spearfish Canyon (#8). That was used for the powerful ending scene where Wind in His Hair sat on his horse and yelled out to John Dunbar in Lakota: ‘You see that I am your friend?

Can you see that you will always be my friend?’

“Shortly after the success of DWW, and likely due to his obsession with the frontier of the 1800s, Kevin produced the award-winning 500 Nations (#9). He came back to South Dakota to film an opening introduction of the documentary series on the Frawley Ranch near Spearfish in South Dakota.

“Years after Dances with Wolves, around 1996, Ken Burns came calling in South Dakota for filming buffalo for his Lewis & Clark documentary (#10). I took Ken and his small film crew, including writer Dayton Duncan, up to the Triple U Ranch where Dances with Wolves’ buffalo herd was filmed for, you guessed it…buffalo. Burns also filmed along the Missouri River near Vermillion in Southeast South Dakota. He was the same guy you see on PBS, very smart, affable and there is no difference between the onscreen Ken and the one you get to spend time with in person, if you are lucky. I enjoyed burgers and malts at midnight at a greasy spoon truck stop after his filming of the buffalo at the Triple U. He asked if I would coordinate the premiere of “Lewis & Clark” in North and South Dakota. I was thrilled.

“During my twelve years as film commissioner of South Dakota, many westerns featuring Native Americans were filmed in South Dakota, including Lakota Woman (#11), Crazy Horse, Thunderheart, Incident at Oglala, and others. Dances with Wolves really brought a watershed of westerns with strong Indian characters to South Dakota and to the film industry.

“No one was really prepared for the incredible success of Dances with Wolves. I know Kevin was blown away by the reception. When the movie was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, I was lucky enough to attend the Oscar Awards ceremony. During Oscar week, Kevin welcomed me to his office. The ceremony itself was the thrill of a lifetime! Seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Screenplay. It was a great way to cap off an epic Dances with Wolves experience!”

See related posts

-Dances with Wolves-Part 1

-Dances with Wolves - Part 2

"Dances with Wolves--Part 3" was originally posted on June 29, 2019 on Facebook and

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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