Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bear Butte, A View From Afar

Bear Butte in the far distance.  It resembles a bear lying down.  Bear Butte is only about six miles north easterly of the Black Hills, but that little distance was enough to hide any view of the Black Hills, until we got a little closer. 
Bear Butte, A View From Afar
Sacred Site From A Distance
By Dakota Wind
BEAR BUTTE, S.D. - Bear Butte is one of the most sacred places in American Indian traditions on the Northern Great Plains. There are over twenty tribes today that revere the Black Hills and Bear Butte, but there are only six late historic tribes that have left archaeological trace evidence of their pilgrimages to the Black Hills: the Lakota, Cheyenne, Comanche, Shoshone, Kiowa, and Crow. Despite that only six tribes have physical evidence proving their cultural and historic ties to the Black Hills and Bear Butte, a continuous cultural occupation dates back 10,000 years. Perhaps hundreds of different tribes journeyed to the Black Hills over thousands of years, the long ago ancestors of the six tribes mentioned above.

The Lakota call the Black Hills Paha Sapa or Hėsapa, meaning simply “The Black Hills.”  The Lakota have the tradition that “we’ve always been here.” 

 The Rosebud Winter Count, also called the Anderson Winter Count, entry for 1755 depicts a man holding aloft what is supposed to represent the Lodge Pole Pine.  This pine is long and slender.  The tree itself is harvested and shaved to make tipi poles. 

The Rosebud winter count has an entry for 1755 marking the Lakota’s entrance into the Black Hills with the pictograph of an evergreen, the Lodge Pole Pine.  My uncle Cedric interprets the Lakota entrance thusly, “We held those Hills as sacred and because we respected them, we defied our own entry to them.  We always knew about them, but skirted the edges of the Hills, keeping them only in sight but didn’t enter them until recent history.”  

That makes sense to me.  It is indisputable that indigenous people have been here for thousands of years and had those years to learn about Unċi Maka, Makoċė, Grand Mother Earth, or Turtle Island as many of our native people refer to the North American continent as. 

 This image of Bear Butte was taken a few miles north of Newell, SD.  Bear Butte is about twenty-five miles south from this point. 

The Elk winter count recalls a rendezvous of sorts at Bear Butte in the 1750s.  There and then, the Lakota took up arms against the Kiowa, smashing the head of one of them and starting a conflict to hold the ‘Hills. 

In 1857, the Lakota held a council at Bear Butte to determine what to do about the growing presence of white settlers, notably miners, in the Black Hills. 

In 1874, General Custer led the Black Hills Expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln.  His command was guided by a detachment of Arikara Indian scouts and a detachment of Dakota scouts from Santee, NB.  It was the Arikara scouts who discovered gold first, Bloody Knife, General Custer’s favorite scout, recognized the stone for what it was and immediately notified the General.  The Black Hills Expedition was in complete violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.  General Custer immediately informed the people of the United States that his expedition confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills which set off a gold rush. 

 About ten miles north and westerly of Bear Butte.  A few miles south from where I took this are recently contructed biker bars and campgrounds.  Its distressing to the native community who go to pray at this site to have to see and hear loud music and rumbling motorcycles. 

The Lakota believe that none could own the land, especially the Black Hills.  And it came that during the settlement era of Dakota Territory or South Dakota, that Mr. Ezra Bovee and his family came to settle on the southern slope of the butte and were the landowners by World War II.  The Northern Cheyene sought permission from Bovee and journeyed to Bear Butte on religious pilgrimage to pray for the end of World War II. 

The Bovee family accepted the native pilgrims unto their land and graciously encouraged the continuation of native religious practices. 

The Bovee family lobbied for national park status, to protect the sacred site.  Not attaining National Park Service status, the state of South Dakota brought Bear Butte into its own park system officially designating it Bear Butte State Park in 1961.  Bear Butte became a National Historic Site in 1965. 

A forest fire, or plains grass fire, in 1996 destroyed many of the trees growing on Bear Butte.

A panoramic view of Bear Butte from the south looking north.  One trail winds east and around back again to the Bear Butte proper, another more direct trail takes hikers to the summit.  Medicine ties, or prayer ties, are attached onto various trees along the side of the trails, even on the side of the road in Bear Butte State Park.  For a larger image, visit:

Every August for two weeks is the Sturgis Bike Rally.  Bear Butte is located six miles north and east of Sturgis, SD.  There are several businesses catering to the motorcycle interest groups that are going up outside Sturgis city limits near Bear Butte. 

In 2007, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds announced a proposal to purchase land easements around Bear Butte to better preserve the ambience of Bear Butte.  Depending on who you are, it was too little, too late for the easement proposal. 

In 2011, Bear Butte became one of eleven sites to be designated that year a “most endangered site” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.