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Bear Butte threatened by shooting range

In the Tsistsistas language of the Cheyenne Nation, Bear Butte is Nowahwus, Holy Mountain. In 50 other Native languages, it is called sacred ground, a place of peace and sanctuary.

Native people go to this honored place to pray, to commemorate events and persons, to seek spiritual wisdom and guidance, to renew traditions and sacred objects, to mark passages of life and to make pilgrimages and offerings.

Holy Mountain rises 1,400 feet above the prairies of the Great Plains, just beyond the northern tip of the Black Hills. It is a National Historic Landmark in the Bear Butte State Park on the South Dakota side of the border with Wyoming.

Eagles and hawks calling from the mountaintop can be heard from great distances. Those are the loudest sounds in the area, if you don't count the week every August when 400,000 bikers descend on the town of Sturgis, S.D., some ten miles from Bear Butte.

The tranquility of Holy Mountain is about to be shattered by 10,000 gunshot rounds daily, if private investors get the shooting range and sports complex they have been developing in secret for more than a year.

Well, not really in secret. The mayor of Sturgis, Mark Ziegler, knew about it a year ago. He says Rep. William J. Janklow, R-S.D., who was then the state's governor, brought the project to his attention.

The federal housing department knew about it and ponied up a $250,000 community development starter grant last year. The Black Hills Council of Local Governments knew about it. They got the quarter-million dollars.

The only ones who weren't in on the secret were the tribal governments who own property at Bear Butte and the Indian people who pray there.

The developers, the state and the feds ignored a whole lot of laws when they failed to consult with or even inform those tribal and traditional religious leaders with proprietary, environmental, cultural and religious interests in Bear Butte.

From time immemorial, Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, Kiowa, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and other people have gone to Bear Butte for religious purposes.

Long before Europeans came to our countries to escape religious persecution in their homelands, Bear Butte was a center of religious freedom.

In all the traditions and histories of those with millennial experience at Bear Butte, there is no record of a hostile encounter or argument. None, that is, until the U.S. Army and federal Indian Police were dispatched in the late 1800s to capture or kill Indians who tried to go there.

Under the federal "Civilization Regulations" from the 1880s to the 1930s, traditional religious practices were banned and people who tried to go to sacred places to pray were punished severely and even marked for death. Most sacred places were declared part of the public domain and later divided up among the federal agencies, states, miners and other non-Indian squatters.

That is how the Bear Butte Indian lands ended up in state and private non-Indian hands.

Boosters of the shooting project say its rifle, pistol and skeet ranges will not affect Bear Butte because it will be located four miles from the mountain.

Existing plans call for testing by the gun industry, but the caliber and decibel level of the weapons to be tested are not specified. Because no environmental impact study has been conducted, the effect of the project on the air quality and serenity of Bear Butte is not known.

The impact of the project on people praying, eagles nesting or buffalo grazing at the base of Bear Butte has not been studied.

There has been no objective scrutiny of the plans for the entire sports complex, with its proposed clubhouse, restaurant and motel. At the very least, they will significantly increase water usage in the area at a time when local sprawl and development are drying up the springs and medicine plants at Bear Butte.

This decrease in water also is a contributing factor to the current condition of soil erosion at Bear Butte. In 1996, a large fire consumed most of the trees and underbrush along one face of the mountain. Even though young trees are growing now, there is not enough moisture or plant life to stop the soil from wearing away.

Bear Butte is more of a mountain than a butte. It's a volcano that bubbled up and bulged the earth's surface, but never erupted. It's on the east end of a spine of volcanoes extending 60 miles west to Devil's Tower, which can be seen from the top of the mountain.

In 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer rode his horse to the top of Bear Butte. In this place of prayer and contemplation where everyone walks gently and whispers, Custer's bombast could not have endeared him to any Indian people praying on Holy Mountain that day.

Cheyenne people at Bear Butte would have known of Custer from his campaigns against their relatives in what is now Oklahoma, particularly at the Washita Massacre of Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle and his people.

Lakota people at Bear Butte would have known of Custer from his campaigns against their relatives. Custer was despised as the person who triggered the gold rush and massive desecration of the Black Hills.

Within two years after Custer's defilement of Bear Butte, he was killed by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Both in life and in death, Custer ushered in the era of official sacrilege of Indian sacred places and criminalization of traditional Indian people.

A Sturgis historian and former Rapid City Journal reporter, Bob Lee, wrote an opinion piece for that newspaper in mid-Feb., "No one opposed early firing range." Citing his own writings as his authoritative source on Indian history and religion - and getting much of the story wrong in the process - he peddles a tale that "present-day Indian activists are voicing grievances that didn't exist with their ancestors."

Lee claims that Fort Meade, just east of Sturgis, operated a firing range throughout its 66-year history "even closer to Bear Butte without complaint" from Indian people. Fort Meade was established in 1878 as a 7th Cavalry post to protect prospectors from the Indians. Lee fails to mention that Custer was the fort's first commander and that Indians were the targets of the "firing range."

Lee makes much of the "55 Indian soldiers" who were stationed at Fort Meade and "used the fort's firing range without complaint of its proximity to Bear Butte."

This point is "absurd," said noted historian and attorney Vine Deloria Jr.

Deloria, who is Standing Rock Sioux and the author of more than two dozen books, said: "People serving in a foreign army are hardly the spiritual leaders of a country."

Lee claims that Bear Butte wasn't sacred to the Lakota "until after the butte was established as a state park in 1962." This is untrue, as historians worth their salt know and have documented, and as representatives of the Cheyenne River, Oglala and other Sioux tribes have been saying clearly and publicly in connection with the proposed shooting range.

He falsely claims that the Cheyenne "religion originated there." Tsistsistas Prophet Sweet Medicine received visions, medicines and instructions at Bear Butte that dramatically changed societal and ceremonial order, but Cheyenne religion existed for thousands of years before that time.

Lee also misperceives the history that is unfolding now, wrongly stating that "no objections to the proposed firing range in the vicinity of Bear Butte have come from the Cheyenne, who have been making pilgrimages to their sacred shrine for generations." Cheyenne leaders are clearly saying that the shooting range project would impede religious freedom and other rights.

Holy Mountain has been standing for more than 500 million years. It has taken the white man a little over a century to bring her to this point of endangerment. For more than 50 of those years, the federal government tried, but failed, to keep Indians away from Bear Butte. Today, it seems that developers and government agents are trying to take the mountain away from the Indians.

Bear Butte is strong and they will fail in this, too.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.