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Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota

Turtle Island and the Indigenous groups who have continuously occupied these lands are older than America. Our spiritual beliefs are tied to Ina Maka (Mother Earth). As such, Indian Country holds sacred sites of reverence that pre-date European invasion.

Bear Butte is one of these ancient holy places. My people, the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation), call it Paha Sapa. Bear Butte is crucial to our traditional way of life. It is where the Lakota received star knowledge and divine instruction. Our greatest leaders, like Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) and TaSunka Witko (Crazy Horse) prayed there. Even today, I know many Lakota who go there for Hanbleceya, to cry for a vision. Westerners call it Vision Quest. This ceremony takes place on the side of the mountain, over the course of four days and nights. Individuals remain in quiet solitude to fast, pray and commune with Tunkasila and the spirits while supporters keep the fire below.

The Cheyenne refer to it as Noavose. Bear Butte is central to their traditional lifeways as well. Sweet Medicine, a Cheyenne prophet, received four sacred arrows and the covenants of the bundle from Bear Butte. These teachings provide life guidance.

Along with the Oceti Sakowin and Cheyenne, many Native Nations of the plains recognize the sacred nature of Bear Butte. We continue to perform annual ceremonies and rituals there as they have been for time immemorial. If you’ve ever hiked Bear Butte, you will see evidence of this. Lovingly crafted prayer ties made by Native hands adorn the trees all along its base.

Bear Butte is our Mecca; our Mount Sinai. Bear Butte has been used as our place of worship for thousands of years longer than the Vatican.

Now Bear Butte and the sacred rituals and ceremonies that must be conducted there are threatened.

Last Fall, the popular Sturgis attraction, Full Throttle Saloon, known as “the world’s largest biker bar,” burned to the ground in an epic blaze. The owner, Michael Ballard, is seeking to rebuild it- but not in its original location. He is planning to construct his new establishment at the Broken Spoke Campground, which is only a mile from Bear Butte.

According to reports, the new site will be 600 acres with 300 cabins and 450 RV sites. Sturgis, South Dakota typically has a population of around 6,600 residents, but during its Bike Rally every August, it often sees over 500,000 visitors. Our ceremonies take place all summer, until the end of August.

As you can imagine, its difficult to safeguard the protocol of sacred ceremonies we are responsible for protecting and pray for a vision in peaceful isolation while hundreds of thousands of noisy, raucous non-Natives are getting naked and drunk on your doorstep. Our ancestors did not have to contend with loud concerts, flashing lights, helicopters, revving engines, and gawking tourists, nor should we.

While I hope that Mr. Ballard will reconsider his decision to move his new saloon so close to our holy church simply out of basic decency and respect, I also remind him that there are possible legal violations that will take place if his plans move forward. Under the Native American Religious Freedom Act, our inherent right to partake in ceremonies without interruption, violation, and destruction, is protected. The construction of this mega-saloon next to Bear Butte will effectively end rituals and ceremonies at the sacred site as we know it. Our ancestors were beaten, jailed, committed to asylums, and killed for keeping these ancient traditions alive.

Some Tribes hold a vested interest in Bear Butte. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and Northern Cheyenne all own land there, and pay property taxes. They help keep the land undeveloped and pristine, and suitable for ceremonial use. The Northern Cheyenne and other Tribes also have a land use agreement with the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs).

We cannot allow Bear Butte to be destroyed on our watch. It is our turn to protect the sacred. We are the new ancestors. No one else is coming. It is up to us to insure that our cultures, languages, stories, and sacred lands are preserved for the next seven generations. Strong hearts to the front.

Join me in asking Mr. Ballard not to build his new establishment next to Bear Butte. He may be reached here: http://fullthrottlesaloon.com/pages/contact

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Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is an author, blogger, biologist, activist, judge, columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, and founding writer with Lastrealindians.com.

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