Mato Paha: Rally to Protect Bear Butte

A film by Medicine Wheel Media

Review by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country

Bikers and sacred sites don’t mix. Particularly around Bear Butte in South Dakota, where thousands of bikers annually roar into Sturgis for days of non-stop partying, preening, and concerts.

Separate from the Black Hills, there are four National designations for Bear Butte:

National Historical Landmark,
listed on December 21, 1981

National Historical Places,
listed on June 19, 1973

National Natural Landmark,
listed on April 1965

Registered National Trail (Bear Butte Summit Trail), listed on June 1,1971

Bear Butte was established as a State Park in 1961. But now an aggressive escalation of commercial desecration of land held sacred by nearly all the Plains American Indian Nations, has begun. This is a blatant disregard for the spiritual beliefs and ceremonies of Native People and the sacredness of this mountain. A local bar owner named Jay Allen has applied for building bigger bars and campgrounds closer to the Butte.

This clash of cultures is captured in a documentary film by Mitchell Zephier, head of Medicine Wheel Media and an award-winning silversmith.

Zephier was working other film projects when the issue exploded in the community. His company already had footage from some of the rallys so they focused on the committee meetings and interviewed local tribal members about the mountain vs. the bikers.

The film begins with a montage of the beauty and seasons of the mountain, then the bikers come roaring into town and drown out the tranquility.

Demonstrations began in 2006 when 500 tribal people marched to the courthouse to protest the upcoming issuance of a liquor license to Allen, who was on a “quest” to build the “World’s Largest Biker Bar” less than three miles from the mountain’s base.

A parade of people testify at the hearing, from Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, to Jay Allen, to elders to local ranchers and business owners. The tribes people explain how Bear Butte is sacred to those who continue to travel to the mountain each summer to pray and hold their annual ceremonies. Instead of praying in peace, traditional people are forced to pray with loud music from bars, motorcycle noise, flashing strobe lights over the mountain, and intoxicated campers nearby.

For the past few years there has been a continual encroachment of bars and venues heading towards the sacred mountain. In the summer of 2006, Allen’s massive two story bar called Sturgis County Line opened. Their goal is to have a 50,000 seat concert stadium and a RV park, in addition to the newly built two story bar. Allen initially wanted to call the location “On Sacred Ground” and erect an 80-foot Indian statue pointing towards the sacred mountain.

But committee members are heard complaining that giving preferential treatment to the Indians is akin to giving favor to religious organizations, something the state is not supposed to do.

Allen’s permit was denied then reinstated. Biker rally events are currently scheduled in June, July and in August for the annual Sturgis Rally. So far, over a thousand bikers are scheduled to attend each event in June and July. The concert venue will be moving forward and by next summer there may be a concert stadium within a mile of Bear Butte. With this new year-round expansion, it will virtually become impossible all summer, to pray in peace at Bear Butte.

This issue has escalated and is now, more critical than ever. A campaign is in progress to educate the bikers in regards to the significance and protection for Bear Butte. Many bikers have stated they were not aware of the significance of Bear Butte previously, but will now support the attempts to limit the noise, intrusive lighting, and alcohol consumption near the mountain.

A website called BikersForButte has even issued some mandates that ask the bikers to respect the land, not to patronize Allen’s establishments, and drive slower and quieter through the area.

Zephier’s film attempts to balance the situation, though his viewpoint is obvious. A powerful mix of music is used throughout the film from traditional chants to modern protest tunes from Marty Stuart. The film is similar to Klee Benally’s documentary The Snowbowl Effect on the tribal vs. commercial interests in Snowbowl Mountain in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Zephier had produced a well balanced, emotional, and historically important film.

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