Manataka American Indian Council





Sacred Bear Butte


By Charmaine White Face

Special to The Native Voice



On the Northeastern edge of the Black Hills, just a few miles from the small town of Sturgis, off Highway 34, lies one of the most sacred mountains to the Plains Indians from the United States and Canada.

Up to 60 different tribes traveled to Bear Butte to fast and pray. Separated by about 8 miles of prairie from the greater Black Hills, which are also considered sacred by these same nations of people, Bear Butte looks like a sleeping bear lying on its side with its head pointed toward the northeast.

Today, people from all over the world come to Bear Butte to pray, to meditate, to try to experience some of the spiritual connection that has been there from the beginning of time.

It is at Bear Butte that Native American tribes received spiritual messages and gifts. In the holy books of the Christians, Moslems, and Jews, it is stated that one of their spiritual leaders, Moses, did the same thing on Mount Sinai when he received the ten commandments.

More than 4,000 years ago, a Cheyenne man named Sweet Medicine received guidance and gifts for the Cheyenne people at Bear Butte. Today, the Cheyenne people continue to come to Bear Butte to fast and pray. Some of the Southern Cheyenne must travel hundreds of miles from Oklahoma where they were displaced by the United States cavalry in the late 1800s when the Cheyenne nation was under threat of extinction.

Geologists, on the other hand, call Bear Butte a lacolith, or a bubble of magma that did not become a complete volcano. They say this happened millions of years ago. Yet the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) people call this place, Groaning Bear. How did the Oglalas know that this mountain groaned?

Non Indian archeologists estimate that Native people have been present in the Black Hills for 11,000 years. The origin stories of the Lakota people tell of the time of the arrival of the Sioux people on the face of Mother Earth through another sacred place, now called Wind Cave. Lakota people also have stories of when dinosaurs, called giant lizards, roamed the earth, of when tiny horses were here, and cats with huge teeth stalked buffalo. These stories date back much farther than 11,000 years.

All the tribes of the Sioux people: Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, came to Bear Butte to pray...and still do. The months of May, June, and July will see families camped at the base while a relative is standing on the side of the mountain fasting in deep meditation. Small colored pieces of cloth containing pinches of tobacco are wrapped around trees and bushes as prayer gifts to the Creator. Larger flags of red, white, black, or yellow, the sacred colors, also are tied to trees to carry the prayers to all the directions.

Bear Butte, the mountain proper, is currently a National Historic Landmark managed by the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department. Although a few parcels of adjacent land has been purchased by some Native American nations, the rest of the surrounding area is ranchland, or is being sold to developers. Two drag racing strips, a biker bar, a convenience store, campgrounds, and housing developments are all located within a few miles of this sacred place.

Most recently, the nearby town of Sturgis and a group of private businessmen received $825,000 from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under the form of a Community Development Block Grant to build a rifle shooting range within a few miles of Bear Butte. As federal money was involved, they were told over and over that they needed to consult with the Native American nations who use Bear Butte to pray. They did not. One of the businessmen owns a gun manufacturing company. Another merchant manufactures ammunition.

A lawsuit has been filed citing violations of 4 federal laws by six tribes: the Northern Cheyenne, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma, the Rosebud Sioux, the Yankton Sioux, the Crow Creek Sioux, the Standing Rock Sioux, and a group of volunteers representing all races and tribes called Defenders of the Black Hills. Violations were cited of the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The defendants include US Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, the Black Hills Council of Local Governments, the City of Sturgis, the Sturgis Industrial Expansion Corporation, and the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Complex (the shooting range). Although a 4 day hearing was scheduled for late June, early July, the defendants were granted a continuance until Nov. 4-7. Nine attorneys represent the defendants while the plaintiffs are represented by a volunteer Rapid City attorney, Jim Leach, from the firm, Petchota, Leach and Dewell.

Some of the effects of the shooting range will be:

  • The sound of an estimated 10,000 rounds per day being fired from rifles and handguns will affect the silence and serenity of people from more than 60 different tribes who come to pray at Bear Butte, as well as non tribal people.

  • Increased air pollution caused by the firing of the estimated 10,000 rounds per day.

  • Increased traffic to the shooting range by patrons and employees, as a clubhouse, motel, and restaurant are planned.

  • The sounds and activity will affect birds and wild life in the Bear Butte Area, and in particular, the eagle, which is important in Native American spirituality and ceremonies.

  • Possible effects on war patients at Fort Meade Veterans Administration Hospital from the sounds of distant gunfire.

No Native American Spiritual leaders, or Tribal Leaders were ever contacted about the plans to build the shooting range which will affect so many people who pray at Bear Butte. As Bear Butte is one of the most important sacred places on the North American continent, in order to provide some protection to this site, we must unite together to stop any more destruction at Bear Butte and other sacred places in the Black Hills.

The legality of land ownership as this area still belongs to the Great Sioux Nation according to the Peace Treaties of 1851 & 1868 made between the Great Sioux Nation and the United States, and in accordance with the US Constitution which states that "treaties are the supreme law of the land."

A second class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the low and middle income people of Sturgis questioning the use of CDBG funds. The economic impact on low and middle income people of Sturgis by building a rifle shooting range for recreational purposes is questioned. No court date has been scheduled.

In the middle 1800s, a Lakota man went up a mountain in the southern Black Hills to fast and pray, to receive guidance for the survival of all the people. The Black Hills were so sacred that purification ceremonies were completed before entering.

Thousands of prayer sites, altars, and burial grounds were in the Black Hills. No animals were hunted in the Black Hills. So when Brown Hat told what he saw on his vision quest, and when it was confirmed by writing on the cliffs near where he prayed, the Lakota people became very sad but knew no blood could be shed in fighting to protect the sacredness of the Black Hills.

On August 2, 2002, Sec. 706. of the Supplemental Appropriations Act in response to Terrorist Attacks on the United States was passed and opened up the last little bit of wilderness in the Black Hills to logging and roads. The last hidden places of sacredness, burial sites, prayer sites, could now be subjected to bulldozers, chain saws, and ignorant desecration by those who don’t know what sacredness means when it is not encased in a man-made building.

The federal laws meant to protect Native American burial sites and sacred places in the Black Hills were dismissed.

In January, 2003, word started passing around the tribes that another form of development was taking place near Bear Butte. In February, more than a hundred people from reservations in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana traveled through blizzard conditions to pray at Bear Butte and gather near Sturgis to discuss what could be done. Leach, the attorney, gave his first speech on the legal tactics. Other actions such as petitions to the U S Senate, and letters to the SD Governor have circulated since then. The US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was asked that Bear Butte come under federal protection including a land buffer zone of 5 miles around this holy mountain.

The noise, chaotic energy, increased human presence, and subsequent pollution caused by the development around Bear Butte currently make it increasingly difficult for the silence so necessary in meditative prayer. But the sounds from a rifle shooting range, so near, also awakens a genetic memory within the Cheyenne and Lakota, traditional allies for millennia, of the cavalry rifles at Sand Creek, the Washita, and Wounded Knee.

The sacredness of the Black Hills is almost completely profaned. The sacredness of little Bear Butte is in peril next.

Charmaine White Face


  • Artifacts dating back 10,000 years have been found near Bear Butte. In more recent times, however, the Cheyenne and Lakota people have maintained a spiritual tie to this mountain.

  • Notable leaders including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull have all visited Bear Butte. These visits culminated with an 1857 gathering of many Indian nations to discuss the advancement of white settlers into the Black Hills.

  • Perhaps Bear Butte's most publicized visitor was George A. Custer who led an expedition of 1,000 men into the region. After camping near the mountain, Custer verified the rumors of gold in the Black Hills. Bear Butte then served as a landmark that helped guide a rush of invading prospectors and settlers into the region.



To:  U.S. government

We the undersigned object to a proposed firearms, weapons shooting range located near the Very Sacred Site known as Bear Butte near present day “Sturgis, SD”. Bear Butte is utilized by the Lakota (misnomer “Sioux”) Indigenous Red “Indian” Nation and Peoples – as well as other Indigenous Nations and non-Indian people – for extremely spiritual purposes, i.e., ceremonies, prayers, spiritual contentment, reflection, etc. 


A firearms disruption center located near such a Very Sacred Site would be a violation of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, a site protected through Article VI of the U.S. Constitution which allows Indigenous Peoples to live and travel freely throughout the Black Mountain (“Black Hills”) Region. 


To attempt to build such a noisy, destructive weapons of mass destruction playground near such a pristine, beautiful and sacred site is blasphemy and sacrilegious. 


We demand the state of South Dakota take measures to stop their citizens from trying to build offensive, disruptive, obnoxious and detrimental enterprises near Bear Butte and all similar sites such as the Ho Coka (Center of the World, misnomer “Harney Peak”), Grey Horn Butte (misnomer “Devil’s Tower”) – much the same as the world’s people would not want to see a shooting gallery next to their ‘churches’, the ‘wailing wall’, ‘old faithful geyser’, etc. 


We encourage concerned American people to develop legislation in their states (twenty mile radius of peacefulness), which prohibits this flagrant violation of Article VI of the Constitution, the 1851 Treaty, and peoples right to gather, pray, seek solitude, and maintain their culture without disruption and annoyance.



The Undersigned