STURGIS, S.D. – Another biker bar will live in the shadow of the sacred Bear Butte in the Northern Black Hills.
With a vote of 5 to 0, the Meade County commissioners approved a malt beverage license April 4 for Jay Allen, owner of the soon-to-be Sturgis County Line campground and biker bar, which is located two and one-half miles north of Bear Butte.
More than 500 people, American Indians and supporters, gathered at Bear Butte to pray and offer support in opposition to the license. The group then assembled outside the courthouse where the hearing was held, but not all were able to enter the room in which the hearing was held.
Meade County is the largest county by area in the nation and property rights are nearly sacrosanct. Only two criteria are needed to acquire a malt beverage license: character of the applicant and location of the business.
Since there are other beer licenses within two and one-half miles of Bear Butte, the commissioners said they could not disapprove the application given the fact that Allen has a good record. Allen owns an existing biker bar, the Broken Spoke, which he boasts is one of the biggest such bars in the world – upwards of 500,000 bikers visit the area in the first two weeks of August.
Other beer licenses nearby are located at campgrounds and businesses other than large or designated biker bars. Allen plans to construct a 35,000-seat amphitheatre, a campground, RV park and, eventually, a rodeo arena.
“I have a respect for the people [American Indians], but I have a right to do what I’m doing,” Allen said.
He said even if the beer license was not approved, he would build the campground.
“There are many sacred places to your nation and to our nation. Thirty nations consider that mountain to be sacred,” said Carter Camp, Ponca. The Ponca Tribe is one of the tribes that has historically prayed at Bear Butte.
Traffic and excessive noise from open-baffled motorcycles is a major concern to those who pray on the mountain. “The location could not be worse,” Camp said.
Many opponents of the beer license agreed that Allen could have a beer license but felt that he should move the location of the proposed bar. Allen’s Broken Spoke bar is located west of Bear Butte. The new facility will be east of the Broken Spoke, just north of Bear Butte.
“When Bear Butte is destroyed, it is the end of our culture,” Camp said.
Opponents argued that future generations of American Indians will be affected by the consumption of alcohol and party atmosphere around Bear Butte. Many tribal nations bring youth to the mountain to pray and be educated about the culture.
“Our view of the world is our view from that mountain,” said Lawrence Kills Back, tribal council member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The Northern Cheyenne own some 700 acres of land around Bear Butte. “We bring youth here to learn about their identity,” he said.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribal council has passed two resolutions, one that supports the environment, the other in opposition to the beer license.
The Meade County Commission received more than 600 letters, both supportive of and in opposition to the license. An international association to protect Bear Butte received more than 4,000 signatures on a petition opposing the application.
“I come from a culture that respects the collective with integrity; you [the commission] talk about individual rights,” said Rosalie Little Thunder, president of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center.
“This will bring unbelievable degradation to this community.”
There are 46 malt beverage licenses in Meade County, 12 liquor licenses and seven package liquor licenses, most of which are in Sturgis or along I-90 between Sturgis and Rapid City, and all are welcoming to bikers.
“As a taxpayer, I want to know where this will stop,” said Justy Levine, a Meade County rancher who lives east of Sturgis. She said garbage is strewn along the roads and that she had visits from 30 bikers, drunk and lost, in her yard.
“I was alone and afraid to go outside. How much more do we have to take?” she said. “I’m ashamed to be from Sturgis.”
To the south of Bear Butte are two very large biker bars: the Full Throttle Saloon, billed as the largest biker bar in the world, and the Buffalo Chip, famous for its outdoor concerts. Sturgis is home to many small casinos and bars. Most of the biker-oriented businesses operate only during the first two weeks each August.
Resolutions from three tribes supported a five-mile buffer zone around Bear Butte without liquor or beer licenses. The state Legislature killed a bill that would have created a buffer zone in this year’s session.
Bryce Flint, attorney for Allen, said the issue was about property rights and that there were no buffer zones around any religious sites or parks. “We can’t use religious criteria. There are bars in Meade County within two and one-half miles of churches.”
Also at issue was to find a way for both cultures to work and live together. American Indians have been shut out of issues by the state Legislature in past years and now by a county commission.
Debbie White Plume, Oglala, from the Bring Back the Way organization, said the decision was not unexpected, but she said the young people were disappointed.
“We will not go away,” she said. There is a gathering planned for July 4 at Bear Butte and expectations are that hundreds of people from many nations will attend.
The commissioners were reminded that they could shape the future of the county by the decision they make to allow another biker bar.
“I go to Bear Butte every night to watch the sunset. This is not about drunkenness and sex,” Allen said. “There is a lot I can do with this property. By 2008 I expect a rodeo grounds. This will be a positive, and not about the bar business.”
He indicated the business would eventually be open longer than the two weeks of the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Classic, known also as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Commissioner Dean Wink, who represents the district in which Bear Butte is located, said he was not convinced that the county needed another biker bar and that he knew the mountain was a symbol for American Indians; but he referred to the way the United States was established and had set up rights for people, and that private property rights were paramount because this was a Meade County issue. “There was nothing presented today that would prevent this license.”