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Bear Butte, SD (Lakota et. al.)

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Located in Southwest South Dakota, Bear Butte, with an elevation of 4,422 feet, rises above the South Dakota prairie on the northeast edge of the Black Hills. To most, Bear Butte stands simply as a beautiful and striking landmark, but to many Plains Indian tribes, it is one of, if not the, most important focal point in their religious and cosmological belief systems. Bear Butte is a tertiary intrusive, which formed when volcanic magma pushing to the surface caused an uplift in the earth’s crust, but failed to reach the surface for eruption. The mountain has religious significance for over 30 indigenous groups, including the Lakota Sioux, the Omaha of Nebraska, and the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne). Native peoples from Canada to North Texas know and believe Bear Butte to be a sacred place. Many conflicts concerning the obstruction of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the first amendment have surrounded the management Bear Butte, including the public access to the mountain, proposed construction of a shooting range, and approved liquor licenses for bars and concert venues within earshot of the Butte. As Bear Butte is an active religious site for native worshippers, these controversies have roused a vocal and dedicated mass of defenders of Bear Butte.

Religious Significance and History

The Lakota call Bear Butte Mato Paha, or Bear Mountain, and believe the Butte to be the most powerful land mass in their religion. They consider Bear Butte sacred for its location near the Black Hills and due to the fact that one can find the seven sacred elements – land, air, water, rocks, animals, plants, and fire – surrounding the Butte. The Lakota believe that Bear Butte is most sacred when worshippers pray there with the Lakota Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. On April 4, 2006, Debra White Plume spoke to the commissioners who were listening to public input on the request for a liquor license by a biker bar to be built near Bear Butte. While speaking she attempted to confer the significance of the Mountain. She related the story of how the map of the sky that guided the spiritual life of the greater Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations was given to them on the top of Bear Butte. The map particularly instructed the Sioux on how they should behave while near or on Bear Butte. The receiving of the star map is not unlike the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. She explained how people gather at Bear Butte at particular times of the year to consider important questions to the tribe and make lasting decisions for the people, as well as to gather medicine and food. The Cheyenne call Bear Butte Noahvose, and believe that their gods presented their mythical hero, Sweet Medicine, four sacred arrows and a medicine bundle in a cave at Bear Butte. Gordon Yellowman Sr. tells the story of Sweet Medicine (Listen). The story explains the importance of Sweet Medicine as a prophet to the Cheyenne, he is a religious figure of at least equal importance as Moses to the Cheyenne people. The fact that Sweet Medicine is said to have communed with the spirits on Bear Butte is evidence to the fact that the mountain is a place of acute religious importance to the Cheyenne. These two native groups, along with the plethora of others, annually hold sun dances, sweat lodges, and vision quests at Bear Butte, making it one of the most active native sacred sites in the United States.
The religious magnitude of Bear Butte becomes apparent when examining its rich history. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull all camped, prayed, and performed ceremonies at Bear Butte during their lifetimes. A council of Sioux met at Bear Butte for yearly summer conventions; in 1857, a much larger convention, including the Teton, Miniconjou, Oglala, Sans Arc, and Hunkpapa Sioux tribes convened at the mountain to discuss the invasion of the white men onto their lands. During this convention, the young Crazy Horse underwent an Inipi, or a purification ceremony, and had a great vision on the inclines of Bear Butte, which his father interpreted as meaning that Crazy Horse would one day be a great warrior. In June 1871, Crazy Horse returned to Bear Butte for a Hanblecheyapi, or a vision quest, and foresaw the upcoming Black Hills War. After Crazy Horse’s death, legend has it that his followers buried him near Bear Butte. More recently, the movement to pass to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), one of the most significant pieces of legislation addressing with Native American religious grievances, began in 1967 after Native traditional religious leaders and practitioners held ceremonies on Bear Butte. AIRFA affirms the right of Native Americans to have access to their sacred places.

Controversy Surrounding the Black Hills

Bear Butte is so important to the Lakota that when they met with the United States’ government in 1868 to discuss treaties, the Lakota demanded the control and ownership of the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, forever. The treaty that they signed would later be called the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The treaty spelled out the agreement in very clear, unmistakable language so that the Black Hills would be:
set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named...and the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons...shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article.
However, in 1874, General George Armstrong Custer violated the treaty and on August 15th camped at the base of Bear Butte. His expedition was meant to confirm or disprove the rumors of gold that were floating along the frontier. When he returned and confirmed the rumors, white settlers flooded illegally onto the Great Sioux Reservation. Not wanting to remove the miners and punish them, the U.S. government demanded the sale of the land back to the U.S. by January 31, 1876. An army messenger delivered the demands to Crazy Horse and Black Twin, whose followers were camping at the foot of Bear Butte that winter. The government was forced to resort to threats of withdrawing all aid (food, housing, medicine) from Lakota living on the reservations if the Black Hills were not surrendered to the government. However, even with those threats, by February of 1877 the United States was only able to convince ten percent of the adult male Sioux to sign an agreement that abrogated the treaty of 1868, and took the Black Hills from the Sioux.
In the 1920’s the Sioux began to demand the return of the Black Hills, in the 1970s the Sioux sued the United States government. In 1980, the Supreme Court determined the land had been unlawfully taken from the Sioux Nation, and awarded the Sioux $17.5 million, the worth of the land in 1876, plus interest that accrued 5% for each year since 1877. Justice Harry Blackmun said, "A more ripe and rank case of illegal dealings may never be found in or history." The Sioux, however, refuse to take the compensation, stating that they want rightful ownership of the Black Hills again. Even though some members of the Sioux believe that the money would benefit the Indians more than the ownership of the Black Hills, the majority still refuse to consider taking the money and instead are continuing their efforts to earn back the Black Hills.

Public Use of the Black Hills

In 1890, when the U.S. opened up the Black Hills for homesteading, Ezra Bovee homesteaded on Bear Butte. Throughout his lifetime, he cooperated with natives who wished to perform sacred ceremonies on the butte. In the mid-1950s, Ezra attempted to sell the mountain to the United States in order to preserve it as a National Park; however, efforts stalled after his death, and eventually the state bought the land and established it as a State Park in 1961.
Once the government established Bear Butte as a state park, a paved parking lot, visitor center, hiking trails, roads, and a campground were built at the foot of the mountain to benefit tourists. In the 1980s, Tsistsistas and Lakota spiritual leaders decided to sue the South Dakota Fish and Parks Department and the state of South Dakota for the exclusive right to Bear Butte, saying that the public impeded their free exercise of religion. In 1983, in Fools Crow v. Gullet, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that state park did not infringe upon the freedom of religion rights of the Lakota and that the courts could not give the Lakota exclusive access to Bear Butte as that would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Currently, Bear Butte State Park is making an effort to cooperate with native worshippers. The park service has built two hiking trails: one is for the general use of the public, while the other is exclusively for worshippers. The employees at Bear Butte also instruct visitors to respect the multi-colored prayer flags and tobacco ties left during prayers by the Lakota. Native Americans wishing to pray at Bear Butte do not have to pay the entrance fee. In addition, the park service is hoping to add some Lakota members to their staff in order to more fully educate the public on the sacred aspects of Bear Butte.

Construction of a Shooting Range

In 2003, the city of Sturgis, the closest town near Bear Butte, decided to construct a shooting range, to be called The Black Hills Sportman’s Complex four miles north of Bear Butte. Seven separate tribes and a local group from Sturgis sued to halt the creation of the shooting range. The former governor of South Dakota, Bill Janklow, who at the time was serving as the state’s congressional representative, had supported the project and had awarded the developers $825,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to assist in the $900,000 project. However, upon review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the present Governor Mike Rounds revoked the monetary grant and returned the $313,800 that had already been spent. The city of Sturgis decided to halt the project, due to the lack of funds in January of 2004.
While this controversy has been resolved, it remains significant because it is the first time Native Americans protested noise as a disturbing factor to their religious worshipping: they stated that the noise from the shooting range would affect their ability to practice their religion at Bear Butte. This issue concerning noise later resurfaced when two private developers began plans for concert venues and saloons within five miles of Bear Butte.

Concerts, Campgrounds, and Bars

Every summer, Sturgis holds a motorcycle rally. In 2004 and 2005, over 500,000 motorcyclists flooded Sturgis to attend the rally. Due to the immense popularity of the rally, the town has a high demand for entertainment events and camp grounds to house all the visitors. In supplying this demand, two developers have stepped into the forefront: Gary Lippold, the owner of Glencoe CampResort, and Jay Allen, the owner of the Broken Spokes Saloon in Sturgis. These two men have both proposed immense construction of bars and concert venues within earshot of Bear Butte, infuriating the Indians that worship at the mountain.
Gary Lippold owns Glencoe CampResort and is the largest private employer in the city of Sturgis. He claims that his family has homesteaded the land he owns for around one hundred years. He has built a large concert venue and has planned a five-day concert entitled Rock’n The Rally. This venue has booked big-name acts, including Nickelback, Keith Urban, and Big & Rich, for the 2006 motorcycle rally in August. He petitioned to have a liquor license, claiming that he needed to serve alcohol in order to ensure that he would have a large enough audience for Rock’n The Rally. On May 2, 2006, commissioners unanimously approved his liquor license. Lippold will pay $500,000 for the liquor license; during the hearing, he said, “I can’t sell enough booze in 10 lifetimes in (10 days per year) to pay for this liquor license,” demonstrating the importance he places on this license. About 120 dissenters showed up at the hearing to protest the liquor license, saying that the liquor license would cause a disruption of the spiritual atmosphere at Bear Butte. The protesters were mainly concerned tribe members, but are backed by a loose unlikely coalition of Native Tribes, ranchers, and Christians. Richard Fisher, a retired area pastor explains his support for Native groups by saying, "I doubt the county commissioners would issue similar licenses next to any of the Christian churches."
While Lippold has already completed construction of his venue, Jay Allen has not. He owns 600 acres around Bear Butte, and has plans for a 155,999 square foot parking lot, 22,500 square foot saloon, and an amphitheatre to seat 30,000 people. He also petitioned for a liquor license, and amidst loud protests, he received one on April 4th, 2006. Over 500 people protested at the hearing, shutting down Highway 34 in the process; hundreds of people stood outside during the hearing while the building was filled to its capacity of 70 people. Allen hopes to have his new Broken Spokes saloon and Sturgis Country Line Campground open for the rally in August, but will wait to see how successful Rock’n The Rally is before building his amphitheatre.
As demonstrated by the number of protesters at these hearings, the Lakota and other native peoples are vehemently against the construction of such bars and concert venues and the granting of liquor licenses. Their opinion is espoused on various native organizations’ websites, specifically, an inter-tribal coalition dedicated to defending the sanctity of Bear Butte. Native peoples fear that the noise from the newly constructed entertainment and campout sites will disrupt their ability to pray on Bear Butte; they are also concerned about the aesthetic value of Bear Butte, as the sites will be highly visible from atop the mountain. The Oglala Lakota and a local group filed petitions and court challenges against the Allen’s liquor license; however, the petitions were rejected by the commission with the reason that the approval of Allen’s license was an administrative decision and therefore not subject to referendum. Starting officially on July 4, 2006, tribes began a summer long protest encampment on Rosebud Sioux Tribe owned land at the base of Bear Butte. Throughout the 2006 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally protesters from various tribes set up camp at Bear Butte and urged tourists and bikers not to visit the bars and campgrounds being built around Bear Butte. However, both campgrounds were open for business throughout the Rally. Two court challenges were filed in the 4th Circuit Court and are awaiting action. The Lakota hope to have the liquor licenses revoked and the construction halted; ideally, they would like at least a five-mile buffer zone around Bear Butte to ensure no noise pollution and minimal aesthetic interference.

Legal Impediments to the Efforts of the Lakota

The Lakota will have to find a way to defend their argument that the noise from the amphitheatres, bars, and campgrounds will disrupt the ability for the Lakota to pray on Bear Butte. The Lakota’s case becomes difficult to make due to the fact that the disruption will not actually be located on Bear Butte itself; the Lakota will need to try to build a case to demonstrate that the spirituality of Bear Butte is not just confined to the slopes of the mountain. In addition to the impingements on their first amendment rights that native worshippers maintain the biker bar would cause, Bear Butte has a another layer of protection. It was labeled a National Historic Landmark under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, an act meant to preserve and protect the historic resources of the U.S. In Section 1, the National History Preservation Act states that:
The preservation of [Native American] irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.
Unfortunately, the Act only applies to projects in which federal funds are being utilized. And being as the proposed development is funded entirely privately, the Act may afford little protection against the proposed development.
The Lakota will undoubtedly experience legal obstacles when trying to make their case. The major legal protection that Jay Allen and Gary Lippold have is property rights. Both Gary Lippold and Jay Allen own the land that they plan to develop. Private property rights generally mandate that the owner of a property has:
1) Right to use the resource
2) Exclusive right to service of the resource
3) Right to determine use of the resource
4) Right to sell, rent, etc. the resource
Therefore, both Lippold and Allen, as owners of this property surrounding Bear Butte, have the right to construct bars and concert venues on the land in order to turn a profit. This issue of property rights is what came into play at the two liquor license hearings. Dean Wink, the only commissioner who addressed the protesters and the press after the Allen hearing, said, “I’m not convinced that Meade County needs another biker bar,” echoing the sentiments of the other members of the commission. Wink continued, “I have a problem deviating from the standards we’ve set down,” referring to the already established regulations for liquor licenses. Due to the fact that Allen’s request for a liquor license meets state and country standards, Wink argued that the commission had no choice but to grant Allen the license.


The sacredness of Bear Butte as a religious site for the Lakota and a myriad of other native groups cannot be disputed. Legend and history, as well as the determination of the Lakota to defend Bear Butte today demonstrate the importance of mountain. The battle to protect Bear Butte is shaping up to be a battle between religious rights and property rights, coupled with the perceived need for economic development in South Dakota. Unfortunately, controversies involving the infringement of the religious rights of the Lakota have caused clashes between natives and those who do not see Bear Butte in the way of the Lakota and other Native Tribes.
Drafted by Haven Leeming and David Holman, edited by Nate Chappelle
Updated on June 12, 2006