American Indians protest biker rally nearing sacred site
By Stu Whitney, USA TODAY
STURGIS, S.D. — Once a year, amid the hammering August heat, this Black Hills hamlet becomes a bikers' paradise by hosting the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — a weeklong celebration of leather, bikes and beer that draws as many as 500,000 riders. That's in a town of 6,400 in a state of only 776,000 people.
It's also a tradition for local critics to decry the increasing size and commercialism of the 66-year-old event, which once again will congest highways and hotels (and jails) when rally week starts Monday.
This summer's clamor is louder and more emotional, however, mainly because of a clash that pits Native American heritage against chrome-and-steel capitalism.
The battle is being waged over Bear Butte, a mountain 6 miles outside Sturgis that the Plains Indians have long considered sacred. Indians from across the USA are gathering today for a four-day summit, and protests — including efforts to deflect biker traffic from the site — are planned.
With a trend toward open-air biker bars and concert venues, the rally has crept closer to the butte. This summer, construction began about 2 miles north of the mountain on a 600-acre campground billed as the "world's biggest biker bar." The camp is within sight of where Native Americans gather to fast and pray.
"In the past, all the partying was done near town, but now they're going to surround our sacred mountain and desecrate it, drink on it, and leave their trash when they go back to where they came from," says Vic Camp, 31, a Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Tempers flared last August, when Arizona entrepreneur Jay Allen announced plans to build the giant biker bar and entertainment complex on Highway 79.
Camp and other Native Americans have gathered on tribal land north of the butte to protest the granting of beer and liquor licenses to Allen and other property owners. They claim that rally-related noise disturbs the sanctity of a spiritual place whose past visitors included Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
The protesters, joined by some area ranchers, are requesting a 5-mile "buffer zone" around Bear Butte, a state park where buffalo roam freely and colorful pieces of cloth hang from trees to symbolize expressions of prayer.
"Just imagine if they told all the Christians in America, 'You guys can't go to church ... until we're done partying,' " says Camp, who is joined by about 100 other Native Americans, with more on the way for the summit and protest. "This mountain that you see here is a sacred altar — it's our church, school, and hospital all in one," he said. "We have men up on the hill right now who are fasting and praying, and they have to listen to cement trucks driving by and the pounding of hammers."
Much of the rancor is directed toward Allen, the outspoken owner of the famed Broken Spoke Saloon in Sturgis. He first wanted to call his new complex "Sacred Ground," complete with tepees and an 80-foot Indian statue.
Allen abandoned those ideas and changed the name to Sturgis County Line after criticism from Indian groups. He hasn't backed down on his vision, with future plans calling for 150,000 square feet of asphalt and an amphitheater to seat 30,000 concert-goers.
"I get death threats on a weekly basis," said Allen, who first attended the Sturgis rally as a leather gloves vendor in 1986.
"But I have been nothing but respectful to the Native Americans, and I tried to use this as a tool to enlighten people about their lifestyle. Their tradition isn't going away, but ours isn't either." Allen's new venue will consist this year of about 100 RV sites, and crews are working feverishly to finish a bar, vending and music areas before the rally begins. "This isn't a five-star restaurant," said Allen, who plans to travel to the rally from Phoenix in a 1954 Greyhound double-decker bus. "As long as I've got ice-cold beer and good music, we'll be OK."
A group of local volunteers, including Native Americans, called the Bear Butte International Alliance is promoting a "Don't Ride 79" campaign, urging bikers not to travel on Highway 79.
"We probably will stop the traffic from going on this road, but we're going to do it in a peaceful and respectful way," Camp said. "We're not against the bikers, and we're not against the Sturgis rally."
Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin offered a note of caution about protesters trying to stop traffic.
"I wouldn't say we're expecting anything more than the normal rally concerns," Merwin said. "But if they start backing up traffic on Highway 79, those bikers are not going to be happy."
Camp insisted that if there's any violent action, it won't be initiated by Native Americans gathered at Bear Butte.
"The elders instructed us to go about this in a very peaceful way," Camp said. "They asked us to come here with our pipes and our sacred eagle feathers and staffs to bring many nations together.
"If it is provoked, it will be provoked by the other side — by disrespectful bikers coming through and hollering at us and spitting at us, like they have done at other protests."
Posted 8/1/2006 12:04 AM ET