Indigenous Ceremony at Bear Butte Faces Disruption, ‘Desecration’

This summer, two contrasting worlds will converge over a South Dakota mountain known as Bear Butte, rocking its sublime landscape with political dissonance. Around its base, bikers will arrive in droves for beer and music at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Meanwhile, on the steep, hush slopes, indigenous people of various tribal backgrounds will undertake a solemn ceremony of deep worship.

While those paying spiritual homage to Bear Butte have for years contended with the crush of motorcycles and amplified rock music from the biker rally, tensions have recently intensified with emerging commercial developments in the area.

Plans are underway to construct one of the world’s largest biker saloons along with two amphitheaters designed to seat tens of thousands of people for big-name rock concerts. The expansions, which were recently approved for alcohol licenses by county commissioners, will capitalize on the estimated 600,000 visitors that Sturgis will draw this year.

Native communities are more concerned than ever that increased noise, pollution, traffic and crowds will bring the disruption to intolerable levels: Just a few miles away from the teems of partying bikers, hundreds will seek solitude and meditation through an intense period of prayer, known as the "Vision Quest." As part of South Dakota’s Black Hills – a legendary expanse that natives say was illegally taken from them over a century ago – Bear Butte has traditionally belonged to the Plains Indians, who know the site as Mato Paha in Lakota and Nowahwus in Cheyenne. It has been recognized as a worship ground by dozens of native peoples across North America, according to indigenous-rights activists.

Bear Butte is protected as a state park, but the grounds adjacent to it are not, and the surrounding Meade County has no zoning laws to restrict business development.

While proponents of the commercial expansions say they are simply making room for harmless recreation, native groups call the development activities around Bear Butte desecration and a reflection of the oppression that has haunted the site for generations.

"Our relationship with Bear Butte predates Meade County… It predates America, it predates Columbus," said Debra White Plume, an organizer with the Inter-Tribal Coalition to Defend Bear Butte, a grassroots group. "This society here – they obviously don’t value our human right to pray."

On the Fourth of July, the Coalition, which formed last year to oppose the new business developments, launched its "Gathering of Nations," an encampment of hundreds of native people and their allies near the foot of Bear Butte. Bringing together various tribes in a demonstration of spiritual and political solidarity, the Gathering was inaugurated with a day of prayer ceremonies, dances and other traditional rites.

"What we hope to accomplish by having this gathering," said White Plume, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, "is providing a time and a place, in a real spiritually powerful place, for all indigenous people facing sacred-site-desecration issues to come together… and try to come up with a collective strategy that will help all of us to achieve the protection of these places that are important to our people."

At the beginning of August, as the Sturgis festivities move into high gear, the Gathering of Nations will culminate in a summit of tribal elders and other leaders to develop a unified plan to advocate for the preservation of sacred grounds.

Unbowed by the opposition, biker-entrepreneur Jay Allen of the Broken Spoke Saloon is plodding ahead with the construction of a 30,000-seat amphitheater and a 22,500 square-foot biker saloon sited on 600 acres of newly purchased land. The nearby Glencoe CampResort also has plans underway to open a similar concert venue in the coming months.

The Broken Spoke website touts its new venture as a campground where "patrons can enjoy a bit of respite and transformation from a beautiful oasis." Allen emphasized in a statement that he originally planned to call the site "Sacred Ground" and display an 80-foot statue of a Native American and a rentable "teepee village," to "promote the culture and educate riders about American Indians and Bear Butte." Though those plans were scrapped amid opposition from native communities, he maintained, "This is a property-rights issue. I have a right to do what I’d like with my land. I’m a respectful neighbor."

Thomas Van Norman, an attorney with, and member of, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, argued that the Meade County Board of Commissioners had ignored opposing testimony from community members and unilaterally granted Allen’s alcohol licenses. "Something on this scale just shouldn’t be sited that close to this place," Van Norman told The NewStandard. "It’s a place of prayer and worship, where you need quiet, serenity in order to have your prayers fulfilled." The tribe is currently litigating various challenges to the Board’s licensing decisions.

While legal advocates press their case in court, the Coalition has also issued a demand for a five-mile "no-development zone" around the site. Reiterating previous resolutions by tribal councils seeking to block commercial activity in the Black Hils, the proposed zone would provide a buffer against bars and other intrusive enterprises.

Charmaine White Face, coordinator of the indigenous-rights group Defenders of the Black Hills and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said it was difficult to quantify the true spiritual impact of economic development on the experience of the vision quest. The noise, traffic and drinking that accompany the rally are disruptive, she said, but for many, "what is most offensive about all of this is the negative energy. And see, that’s not something you can measure."

White Face said that the disturbances were pushing many to visit the site earlier in the year instead of during the traditional time of prayer in the summer months, in order to avoid crowds.

For many indigenous-rights advocates, the Gathering of Nations serves as a concrete affirmation of native people’s claims to sacred lands across the country, as well as a means of engaging non-native supporters. Humanitarian and church groups have rallied behind the effort.

"[When] you’re there physically defending it," said Sky Davis, an organizer with the Inter-Tribal Coalition and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, "you bring other people in from other people’s cultures, and they can become aware of the meaning and the physical connection."

In addition to grassroots initiatives focused on public education and networking among advocacy groups, White Face said that native activists have also been raising money to purchase land around Bear Butte. Although the group continues to lay claim to the Black Hills under a violated treaty agreement, she said, they are willing to comply with "the laws of the occupier" and pay for the land, just to stave off the commercialization and environmental destruction of the sacred area.

The long-range goal, she said, is to keep raising awareness around the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868 and breached some years later through occupation by the US military and commercial interests, perhaps one-day negotiating equitable restitution.

Despite the grassroots and legal challenges to the new developments, the local government of Meade County seems bent on giving the biker-developers a green light. Robert Mallow, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the Board had granted the Broken Spoke and Glencoe alcohol licenses based on the appropriateness of the locations and the "character" of the applicants.

"When they meet all the requirements, unless you have a good reason, you can’t turn them down, basically," Mallow told TNS, adding that the Board dismissed a proposal from community members for a ballot initiative on Allen’s license, because they see it as "an administrative issue, rather than a legislative issue."

On the Broken Spoke website, Allen claimed that the political backlash was driven by negative "Hollywood" stereotypes of motorcyclists, when in reality, bikers "are about freedom and friendship."

White Plume countered that Allen has been unresponsive to the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s call for a halt to the development. And while she remarked that bikers are a diverse group – and many support indigenous rights – she nonetheless argued that "half a million people converging when you’re trying to pray will have an impact."

Native activists caution that the struggle over Bear Butte should not be dismissed as a simple culture clash. The subtext of the debate, they say, is the systematic discrimination that has been suffocating native places of worship for centuries.

"This ain’t even about bikers. It’s about our right to pray," White Plume said. "It’s about [the business owners] wanting to make more money. And they’re saying their right to make more money and people’s right to engage in a noisy hobby is more important than our human right to pray."

Van Norman, the Cheyenne River Sioux lawyer, said that while sacred lands like Bear Butte slowly lose ground to commercial impingement, worship remains especially crucial in empowering native peoples to take root again in their traditional culture.

"How do people help hold themselves up, who have had had so much happen to them, generation after generation after generation – in terms of legal, personal discrimination, political ousting and lack of economic opportunity?" he asked. In embattled communities, he said, "people who want to better themselves use prayer as a good method, and they need those places kept intact."

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