The Sturgis and Standing Rock Protests

Bear Butte. Photo: David Mattson.

I grew up in the Black Hills of western South Dakota on a small ranch roughly 30 miles away from the small city of Sturgis and between 100 and 200 miles away from the sprawling Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Indian Reservations. David Taylor, who homesteaded our ranch, created a sinuous inholding within the newly created Black Hills Forest Reserve, laid out to capture as much bottomland pasture as possible along aptly named Hay Creek.

As chance would have it, Colonel Custer’s enormous wagon train wound its way down Hay Creek, near our property, on the infamous 1874 intrusion that set the stage for Custer’s final demise at the Little Big Horn. I think I found the ruts from Custer’s wagons cutting across one corner of our property. But probably not. More certainly, my second cousin found the very rock where Custer proudly sported “his” grizzly bear for the infamous trophy shot that has become near-synonymous with despoliation of the Black Hills by Europeans.

The Waters of Racism

The mythos of Custer was infused into a largely unexamined racist narrative in which my grandparents were heroic homesteaders of an unclaimed land to which they applied the last civilizing touches. According to this narrative—both voiced and tacit—Indians lurked somewhere over the horizon on their reservations or in squalid suburbs of nearby Rapid City. A good Indian was one who worked hard for a white employer and otherwise strove to be a virtual white person.

Emergence of the assertive American Indian Movement, or AIM, in the early 1970s rocked this narrative, or perhaps merely affirmed it for some die-hards among my relatives. But even before that, Korczak Ziolkowski’s plans for a monumental sculpture in the Black Hills celebrating the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse—on a scale dwarfing Mount Rushmore—had challenged the triumphalist assumptions of local white culture. On more personal note, Peter Matthiessen’s far from perfect history of AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee placed our small ranch in context of the larger struggle between whites and Indians for the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills. Much to my surprise, Mattheissen began “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” with his impressions of a drive along the Nemo Road accompanied by some AIM activists…right through the meadows on our property.

Bear Butte

Bear Butte is a sacred outpost of the sacred landscape of the Black Hills. It stands like a sentinel over grasslands to the north and east, roughly 6 miles from Sturgis and nearby historic Fort Meade. The Fort’s garrison entered into family lore by providing one of my grandfathers with a market for horses that he and a great-uncle raised to sell as army remounts, which in turn provided my grandfather with enough cash to buy the beginnings of his ranch in Harding county.

The Butte itself was one of my favorite places to hike as a kid, well before it became a State Park with a parking lot, maintained trails, and overlook platforms. I remained blissfully ignorant of the spiritual import of this volcanic laccolith up until the early 1970s, when I started encountering prayer flags attached to the scattered ponderosa pine, with rocks wedged into forks of tree limbs. Many of these trees had grown over and around rocks placed in crooks of branches many years before. It wasn’t by coincidence that the appearance of new prayer flags coincided with the emergence of AIM and a resurgence of Native American religious practices.

The spiritual significance of Bear Butte is not surprising. You can’t help but feel like you’ve been elevated into some part of the heavens. The view from the top is stunning. The sweep of the Black Hills lies to the south, with the town of Sturgis in a fold of nearby encircling hogback ridges.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Sturgis itself was an unremarkable town when I was growing up, a typical center of commerce for nearby ranchers and farmers, as well as a way station for tourists on their way to Deadwood and Rapid City. Sometime during the 1930s a bunch of locals with motorbikes thought it would be fun to get together to race their bikes and have a big party, although the event didn’t begin to attract anyone other than locals until after the mid-1960s. Even during the early 1970s, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally wasn’t much more than a distant literal and figurative rumbling for people such as us, sequestered along a back road in the Black Hills.

But that rapidly changed. By the late 1970s the Nemo Road had been discovered by the bikers. By the 1990s an unending stream of motorcycle packs roared through meadows that had been previously graced by solitude during late July and early August. Even back in the 70s, I was mystified and even a bit horrified by the ethos of noise, intrusiveness, and even lawlessness that seemed to possess the ever-larger throngs of people who relished displays of black leather and death’s heads. From the 1990s on, the population of South Dakota nearly doubled during the weeks when people from all over the U.S. and even the world descended on Sturgis to celebrate what seemed to be a collective rebellion against the norms of civilized society.

Notably, almost all the bikers are white. Most of them are male. Many are respectable businessmen in the life they leave behind while acting out their adolescent fantasies in Sturgis.

The Standing Rock Protests

This backdrop of personal history was subsumed for decades by the immediacy of a life focused on work, family, and relationship unfolding hundreds of miles away from the Black Hills. But the protests during 2016 and 2017 on Standing Rock Indian Reservation, roughly 30 miles north of the North Dakota-South Dakota border and the adjacent Cheyenne River Reservation, threw my earlier life experiences into sharp relief.

The protests erupted when Native Americans organized to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, which was being constructed to transport crude oil extracted by fracking from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field south to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. DAPL was charted to cross sacred burial sites and thence the Missouri River, all within the boundaries of Standing Rock Reservation. Intrusion of the pipeline into the Missouri River raised the specter of a rupture that was almost certain to happen. And, as if cause for concern needed proof, a recently constructed upstream part of the Pipeline ruptured during the protests—fortunately on more-or-less dry land.

The protests drew Indigenous Peoples from throughout North America, indeed from around the world. Even more striking, people of European descent thronged to impromptu campsites in support of the protests—my wife and youngest son among them. The issues of fossil fuels, pollution, corporate greed, Indigenous rights, and legacies of dispossession and genocide clearly struck a powerful symbolic chord.

But what was every bit as attention-getting was the massive militarized response of almost wholly white police and politicians, not only in North Dakota, but in adjacent states as well. The response was in fact tedious, in the sense that we saw yet again the brutal tactics perfected by white Southerners during the Reconstruction and Civil Rights era to violently suppress protests by African-Americans, complete with attack dogs, water cannons, and tear gas. One can only assume that the whites who were meting out violence saw the protests as some sort of mortal threat to the greater public good. Maybe.

The Sturgis COVID Paradox

Bear Butte. Photo: David Mattson.

Fast forward three years to August 2020 and the defiant arrival of 10s of thousands of bikers in Sturgis to participate in a Rally that was officially discouraged yet tacitly encouraged by politicians and business-owners of South Dakota and the Black Hills region. After all, it was money in the pocket.

It perhaps goes without saying that bikers were encouraged to stay away, albeit reluctantly, even peevishly, because of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the Rally 170,000 people were known to have died from COVID-19 in the United States, although the death toll may have been 50% higher. As I write this, public health officials estimate that perhaps 300,000-500,000 Americans will eventually die from the pandemic, with more continuing to die after the disease becomes endemic.

At best, losses to COVID-19 as of August 2020 were twice the number of American fatalities during the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined and, at worst, nearly as many as died during the entirety of World War II. Without belaboring the point, the casualties from any one of these wars—certainly World War II—were considered horrific and, during World War II, sufficient to justify dropping atomic bombs rather than endure the additional casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese home islands.

You would think that politicians and public officials of all stripes and persuasions would consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be a mortal crisis and related acute threat to the body politic. You would think that they would respond to large public gatherings under conditions guaranteed to disseminate and accelerate the spread of the disease with strong proclamations, if not overwhelming force, and with clear connections to threats posed by the pandemic. You would think that anyone who had been paying attention to the evidence accumulated by public health officials since March, even January, of this year would take extraordinary precautions, or avoid such gatherings altogether…like the plague.

But I saw no evidence of this with the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Unlike recent Black Lives Matter protests, attendees flaunted their disregard for basic precautions. Official communications were ambiguous at best. The response of law officers was, as has always been the case, tantamount to gentle admonitions with an occasional slap on the wrist…in the midst of drunken brawls, trafficking of drugs, and other transgressions of law. Certainly a stark contrast to the authoritative response to the Standing Rock protests.

Cultural and Community Motifs

All this raise questions. What is the Sturgis rally about culturally and socially, especially given our current racially and politically charged times? What does this phenomenon mean, not only to those who attend, but also to those who craft authoritative sanctions and permissions? And what do the answers to these questions mean when juxtaposed with the Standing Rock protests?

Often the reflexive response to questions such as these is that one shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. People are complex. Amalgams of people have varied motivations. All these cautions are certainly worthy considerations.

Yet, modalities matter, as do organizing motifs and symbols. People invariably adopt identities and engage in specific activities to signal important messages to themselves and others, all of which happens in the context of communities and cultures that shape the symbols used for messaging. But, importantly, some signals are highly problematic for those of us who care about fostering an expansive commonwealth in which as many people as possible live a life of dignity and fulfilment.

What are people saying by riding loud motorcycles with the symbolic loading of Harley Davidson—unlike, perhaps, the even more reliable, smoother-riding, equally large, and much quieter Honda Glide (which actually do show up at the Rally)? What are people saying by attending a super-spreader event in defiance of even the most basic precautions for preventing the spread of COVID-19? What are people saying by belonging to a community that is almost exclusively white, largely male, and disproportionately populated by men sporting culturally provocative tattoos? What are people saying by attending an event that has been likened to a massive Trump rally?

These are questions that deserve answers.

At face value, all the answers to these questions suggest a protest of some sort against something—necessarily in context of social and demographic change. The derivative question is against what and with what agenda for American society?

The Sturgis Motif

The key symbols and signifying behaviors of Sturgis’s motorcycle rally are glaringly obvious to anyone who takes a few minutes to look at photos from the event. And it doesn’t take too much digging to uncover its mythic and cultural roots.

Although motorcycles of all sorts are a centerpiece, unmuffled low-slung Harley-Davidsons are central symbols. So are displays of tattoos, bandanas, black leather, and blue denim. Increasingly, American flags are part of collective displays, accompanied since 2016 by a veritable cornucopia of knick-knacks celebrating Donald Trump—bobble-head dolls, bumper stickers, flags, hats, ad nauseum. As important, white beefy males are an inescapable, even defining, feature of the Rally’s human landscape. All this, perhaps barring outbreaks of patriotism and support for Trump, bears an uncanny resemble to gatherings of Hell’s Angels, Bandidos, Pagans, and Outlaws dating back decades.

Symbolic mirroring of symbols perfected by outlaw motorcycle clubs is clearly no accident. The meaning of these symbols is also no mystery. Hunter S. Thompson probably best plumbed the deeps of this meaning in his ground-breaking 1967 book entitled “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” Hollywood explored and even helped to define this subculture through characters such as Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler in the “The Wild One” and James Dean’s Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause.” If there is a through thread, it is one of inchoate rebellion against norms and conventions of society, closely aligned with tacit or even overt threats of violence.

The Sturgis Apologia

As a general and non-specific proposition, people come together in large gatherings for all sorts of reasons. Among the most common is the pursuit of community and communion organized around friendship and shared rituals. This motivation is almost certainly prominent for many who travel long distances to participate in the Sturgis motorcycle rally, especially among those who have been attending for years. Likewise, the role of community and communion was also certainly prominent for most who gathered at Standing Rock.

I feel confident in saying that the allure of community organized around a shared ethos is nearly universal.

But a person can find community, communion, and shared ritual in any number of ways, including by going to Church, supporting the local volunteer fire department, protesting against racial discrimination, becoming a member of Kiwanis…ad infinitum. What ultimately matters is where one chooses to find this existential solace. It matters whether one chooses to commune with people as part of Black Lives Matter protests, journey a long distance to participate in the Standing Rock protests, or jump on a motorcycle to travel to Sturgis to hang out with a bunch of white people—mostly guys—and flaunt basic public health precautions.

Likewise, I can find “decent people”—yeh, “the salt of the earth”—in virtually any community brought together for any number of reasons. Numerous such people are undoubtedly part of the Sturgis Rally. Yet such people populated parts of the Nazi Party of Hitler’s Germany, or the Communist Party of Stalinist Russia. One of my dearest uncles was proverbially “salt of the earth,” yet he was an unredeemed racist and a devotee of conspiracy theories holding that the United Nations perpetually lurked in the wings waiting to send in blue-helmeted soldiers in black helicopters to take over the United States. “Salt of the earth” often means little more than you are benevolent to a highly circumscribed circle of people who meet certain familial, racial, and ethnic criteria beyond which all bets are off.

Or, more to the point, I find invocations of community and friendship, peppered with references to “salt of the earth people” to be disingenuous but essential features of apologias commonly fielded to excuse and explain the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, especially as manifest during the 2020 COVID-19/Trump reelection pandemic. Basically, I don’t buy the Bull Shit, without in any way intending to honor Donald Trump’s pretentious campaign slogan.

The Standing Rock Protests Reprise

Although collective actions invariably have layered meanings for individuals, communities, and societies, the main meaning and intent of the Standing Rock protests was clearly communicated by those who were involved. The protests were against on-going violations of treaty rights, sovereignty, spiritual sensibilities, and material well-being of local Indigenous People. But these protests also manifest anger against and resistance to a history that featured the dispossession, depopulation, and destitution of Native Peoples at the hands of European colonists unambiguously intent on cultural genocide.

But other meanings accreted to this core, brought by diverse white and non-white participants. Standing Rock was also a protest against racism, bigotry, capitalism, corporate greed, police brutality, and institutionalized political corruption, all given urgency by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump was then, and is even more so now, a central symbol of and advocate for all these pathologies.

The Sturgis Protests

I have no doubt that the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was a protest of sorts. The question is against what and whom? Unlike the Standing Rock protests, the 2020 Sturgis protests were opaque, yet not all that obscure. White people sporting outlaw symbols assembled in unprotected droves despite the on-going COVID-19 pandemic to not only celebrate their allegiance to Donald Trump, but also act out the rituals of shared conspiracy theories, among which was denial of the threat posed by COVID—all under the covering rhetoric of freedom and patriotism.

More than this, though, explicit loyalty to Donald Trump as well as a shared demographic are key to understanding the Sturgis “protest.” Ample research has shown that the majority Trump followers are fueled by anger, fear, and resentment at the erosion of white power and privilege—something they share with many good citizens of South Dakota who live outside the Reservations. Moreover, Trump devotees not only often harbor resentment against educated elites, but also share an affinity for Putin-style authoritarianism and disregard for science. Call it populism if you will, although this usage sullies the populism I grew up with rooted in egalitarianism and agrarian activism.

So, leaving side the near universal pursuit of community, friendship, and shared ritual that bring people all sorts together for all sorts of reasons—common to both the Standing Rock protests and Sturgis Motorcycle Rally—what were the 2020 Sturgis Protests about?

After all these preliminaries, the answer is unambiguous. The Sturgis Protests were against liberalism, urbanity, the norms of civil society, and even evidence-based enlightenment. Perhaps even more than this, it was against the rising power of non-Caucasian people in this country, all encapsulated in the symbolism of Trump, white solidarity, and the rebellious ethos of a motorcycle gang. Even deeper yet, the Sturgis Protest was almost certainly an expression of existential angst arising from the demise of a culture centered on white working-class men with a modicum of education. Despite invocations of patriotism, the Protest was not about anything particularly virtuous or noble.

The Disproportional Response of Authorities

So, why were authoritative responses to the Standing Rock and Sturgis Protests so strikingly disproportional, especially given that by any objective standards the Sturgis Protests constituted the greater threat to public health, welfare, and overall greater good?

Again, the answer is not hard to find. The Sturgis Protests were by a bunch of white people—mostly men—expressing a politically reactionary worldview in support of maintaining white power. This demographic and worldview harmonizes not only with the South Dakota culture and politics I grew up with, but also core beliefs of most people in the region who carry guns and sport law-enforcement badges. Moreover, this protest was part of a gathering that generated a huge amount revenue for local and regional businesses. Perhaps what’s more surprising than the non-response of South Dakota authorities to the Sturgis Protests is that they didn’t play a more overtly supportive role.

By contrast, participants in the Standing Rock Protests were overwhelming Native American, non-Caucasian, or from hives of liberalism, all come together to demand the transformation of American culture and the dethroning of capitalism. And they did not generate massive amounts of revenue for local and regional businesses. This was near-perfect fuel for existential terror among local whites—who also happened to own lots of guns and have near exclusive hold on power. I can only assume that the only reason local authorities didn’t gun down Standing Rock protesters in droves—like their Southern brethren did African-Americans during Reconstruction—was a modicum of federal oversight, a frenzy of national and international media attention, and an urban-centered tidal shift in American culture.

The Waters We Swim In, the Air We Breath

It has taken me decades to translate my early-life experiences into something more than inchoate unease. With some embarrassment I confess that it wasn’t until my 60s that I was able to see, albeit vaguely, the racism that saturated the narratives I grew up with and that continue to hold sway among many descendants of Europeans in South Dakota—indeed among most of my relatives.

But I am not alone. As many have observed before, the trauma of Trump and the related violence meted out against Black Lives Matter protests has perhaps done more than anything else during recent decades to invite deeper examination of the racism and regression that still pervades our culture and institutions.

Even so, this exercise in personal and collective self-reflection is clearly challenging. I’ve been surprised at the superficial coverage of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, even by media outlets such as the New York Times. Aside from some rather trite documentation of cultural motifs and lack of health precautions, no coverage I’ve read has provided much insight into—much less acknowledgement of—the Sturgis Protests and the related non-response by authorities. Nor have I seen any recognition of the lessons contained in a seemingly obvious juxtapose of protests at Standing Rock and Sturgis. Perhaps even more striking, on-going violation of the sacred Paha Sapa by a blasphemous gathering of white men spewing noise pollution and sporting symbols of white supremacy seems to have gone unnoticed, at least outside of Indian Country.

We clearly have a long journey ahead of us.


David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago.