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Beer, broads, bikers -- and the Great Spirit

March 26, 2006|Peter Nabokov | Peter Nabokov teaches at UCLA and is the author of "Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places."

JUST EAST OF THE hogback ridge that encircles the Black Hills of South Dakota rises the irregular profile of Bear Butte, a 4,426-foot-high cross between a hill and a mountain. Geologists call it a laccolith, a volcanic bulge that never erupted, as if still storing its power within.

To a handful of Plains Indian tribes, Bear Butte remains the preeminent sacred place on their continent. On all sides, the approach to this counterpart of Mt. Sinai or Mt. Athos is mantled with waves of prairie grass, allowing arriving pilgrims or vision-seekers to take in the promontory's stillness, quietude and power by degrees.

But the construction of a 30,000-seat-capacity rock-concert amphitheater, a 22,000-square-foot biker bar and a 150,000-square-foot asphalt parking lot adjacent to the butte threatens the place's ability to provide peace and refuge. Every summer, an estimated 500,000 growling Harleys invade the nearby town of Sturgis, destroying the butte's zone of spiritual restoration. However, that August orgy of mandatory machismo, nonstop boozing and wild-girl breast-baring lasts for only two weeks. The mammoth entertainment venue under construction, for which bulldozers are scraping up turf, will bring roaring choppers, blasting music and carousing drinkers year-round.

Next week, the Meade County Commission will hear debate on the venue's liquor license application. An overflow crowd of American Indians is expected to attend. For them, Bear Butte's history is ancient and hallowed. Into the butte's bowels, says Cheyenne Indian mythology, once ventured a man and a woman who were charged with saving their tribe from starvation. Within its cavern-like interior, they received the great Massaum ceremony, with its gift of providing game animals to feed the people. For Lakota Indians, Bear Butte is their ultimate altar, where their Great Spirit placed all seven sacred elements and made it the optimal location for smoking the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, a rite that holds the secret "to the past, present and future of the Lakota people."

Old-time Mandan tribesmen from North Dakota undertook pilgrimages to Bear Butte. In autumn 1857, it was the site where the famous Crazy Horse received his sacred training. As white soldiers and gold miners invaded the Black Hills, it was at Bear Butte that American Indians, led by such legends as Crazy Horse and Black Twin, sought divine assistance in resisting government efforts to force them onto reservations.

Designated a South Dakota state park in 1961, Bear Butte was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places 12 years later. But that honor did not prevent a challenge to the American Indians' traditional use of the place. In 1982, the park added new campgrounds, hiking trails and paved roads to attract non-Indian tourists. Restrictions were put on the times when American Indians could undertake their traditional vision quests. Citing protections for American Indian rituals and sacred places under the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Sioux and Cheyenne jointly sued to stall the developments. But a U.S. District Court rejected their claims.

The full importance of Bear Butte to the social, religious and political histories of Plains Indians is more than matched by its continuing role as a source of spiritual sustenance. Here, American Indian families who have fought their way out of poverty, alcoholism, social dysfunction and the internal colonialism of the reservation system come for a living reminder of their past. Through the mists that often hover around Bear Butte coast eagles, the old messengers of power. Tied on branches throughout the butte zone are prayer cloths and tiny tobacco packets, offerings of thanks from vision-seekers.

Clearly, the explosive noises, riotous exhibitionism and liquor-driven frivolity that the planned entertainment venue will bring to Bear Butte will destroy this mystical sanctuary for American Indians.

The late American Indian intellectual and gadfly Vine Deloria Jr. used to say that locations such as Bear Butte needed "time of their own" to rest and recuperate so they could fulfill their mission of providing spiritual strength to needy people. And as with Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Yosemite National Park or the few other locations that even secular modern Americans generally recognize as restorative in mysterious ways, Bear Butte is a delicate national treasure that must be left alone if it is to do its urgent job. Denying the new entertainment complex its liquor license could be the first step -- and last chance -- for protecting this sacred place and reminding Americans that there may be more to their purple mountains' majesty than meets the eye.

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