RAPID CITY, S.D. – Tamra Brennan, founder/director of the grass-roots organization Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation, has dedicated her life to protecting Bear Butte, known as Mato Paha to the Sioux, and countless other sacred sites across the nation.
One of her recent endeavors comprised of drawing up a draft resolution that entails guidelines for the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association to refer to in their quest to protect Bear Butte and sacred areas listed in the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868.
Since time immemorial, Plains tribes have held vision quests and an array of ceremonies and rites of passages at Bear Butte, especially during the summer months. American Indian veterans have left prayer offerings in gratitude of their safe return. Numerous other Natives simply go there to pray.
The threat of encroaching development and the raucous annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally were the main reasons Brennan drew up the resolution, and just a couple of the reasons why the area needs watchdog groups such as Protect Sacred Sites and its subsidiary, Protect Bear Butte.
Brennan submitted the draft copy to GPTCA in June, which approved it in early July. It was the perfect organization to coalesce, as it consists of 16 tribal chairmen from the Great Plains, covering North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
“This helps show people that tribes are in the loop and they are active in what’s going on in the protection of Bear Butte,” she said.
GPTCA Executive Director A. Gay Kingman said that some minor revisions were made and legal terminology added to the resolution to make it an official document for the organization to call upon when making decisions that directly impact Bear Butte.
Kingman, Cheyenne River Sioux, said the GPTCA was formed about 25 years ago (it was formerly known as the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairman’s Association) and that each chairman shares the common bond of working together on issues that affect their people, including the protection of sacred sites.
When it comes to tribes working with state government on Native issues, Kingman said legislators need further education on the indigenous people of South Dakota. But she was impressed when Gov. Mike Rounds introduced legislation to establish a buffer zone around Bear Butte. The measure failed earlier this year, but it was the thought that counted.
“The tribes would have been supportive, but it was a five-mile buffer zone and it encroached upon the town of Sturgis,” she said. “I think if it could have been three or maybe even four miles, it would have been more acceptable.”
Meanwhile, Brennan and volunteers work on discouraging new development, while watching the actions of businesses that already exist. A total of 10 businesses encroach upon the site – consisting of bars and campgrounds – most of which were built within the past several years.
The Northern Cheyenne, Lower Brule and Rosebud Sioux tribes own land bordering Bear Butte and primarily utilize it for gatherings and ceremonies. Kingman said that other tribes within the region would like to buy up the remaining land, but they consider the asking prices exorbitant and unaffordable.
The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally wrapped up its 68th year in August. Each year, the event features concerts around the clock, and revelers crowd local bars, hotels and campgrounds. Sturgis is located about eight miles east of Bear Butte.
For the past three years, Brennan has made it a point to educate bikers before, during and after the motorcycle rally on the significance of Bear Butte and surrounding sacred sites as a part of the “Bikers for Bear Butte” campaign. This year, volunteers sent out flyers to more than 6,000 motorcycle clubs and dealers across the nation prior to the event.
“What we heard the last couple of years from the bikers is that they had no idea that this is a sacred site because no one ever told them,” she said. “When we were walking around and passing flyers out in town, we never got a single negative response.”
The biggest challenge came this year when she learned that four local campgrounds were going to offer helicopter rides. She was worried that pilots would fly over Bear Butte, so she garnered the support of the Federal Aviation Administration. Officials from the FAA met with helicopter pilots and instructed them not to fly over the site. Out of the four campgrounds, only three ended up offering the rides and just one flew over the mountain on an evening flight.
As for next year’s rally, Brennan, Eastern Cherokee, wants to host educational forums at a venue in Sturgis. “You have to reach out to everybody for the protection of these sites. You don’t want to alienate any particular kind of group.”