American Indians protesting bar development near sacred mountain
By Carson Walker
11:56 p.m. July 26, 2006
STURGIS, S.D. – American Indian tribes trying to protect their sacred Bear Butte have purchased land around the Black Hills historic site to keep it out of the hands of developers eager to serve bikers who roar into town every year for a raucous road rally.
According to Meade County records, three tribes have spent $1.3 million over the last two decades to buy 2.6 square miles of land around usually serene Bear Butte, where colorful prayer flags line a hiking trail and Indians have come for centuries to fast and hold ceremonies.
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For a week every August, the sound of the South Dakota wind is replaced in the hills by the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This year's rally is Aug. 7-13, and Indians from several tribes are camping out near the butte in protest of bars and other entertainment venues they feel violate the sanctity of the 3,100-foot mountain.
“The mountain is sacred to us,” said George Whipple, executive director of Tribal Land Enterprise, an arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “Therefore, the cultural and spiritual value of the land was what was significant to us. By keeping with that tradition, we're also keeping it from being developed into a beer garden.”
The butte – an ancient volcano that never erupted – and the land immediately around it are in a state park, but surrounding areas are open for commercial development. That development has been driven in part by the road rally, which attracted 525,000 bikers last year.
Despite the land purchase by tribes, the Meade County Commission has approved several alcohol licenses for sites near the butte. Commissioners have said they have no basis to deny alcohol licenses and people have the right to use their land as they see fit.
“The Legislature gives us the power to issue the permits based on character and location,” said Commissioner Curtis Nupen. “We have those two factors to take into account.”
Character can be an issue if an establishment regularly has run-ins with the law; location concerns include proximity to churches and places where children gather, Nupen said.
With the increasing demand for land near Sturgis for businesses that cater to bikers, it's getting too expensive for even the richest of tribes to buy land and leave it idle, Whipple said.
“Agriculturally, you couldn't buy a piece of land up there and make it pay,” he said. “Unless you're going to develop it or make money off the beer sales and the rally, you're spending a lot of money for not much return.”
Indians have gathered at Bear Butte this summer ahead of the rally to protest development, likening the mountain to a church.
Alex White Plume, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, helped organize a camp near the butte's base designed to draw tribal members and leaders to a Gathering of Nations Treaty Summit in the days before the rally. Indians also plan to march from Bear Butte to the Meade County Courthouse in Sturgis during the rally.
All events will be peaceful, organizers said. They hope to persuade some bikers to voluntarily stay away from commercial sites east of Sturgis.
“We're here to defend our sacred site,” Plume said. “We have to learn to get along, but we also have to have mutual respect for each other and that's not happening today.”