By Rob Capriccioso -- Today staff
PIERRE, S.D. - A group of impassioned Indians gathered at South Dakota's Bear Butte State Park June 21 to pray for healing and to highlight what they call ''horrifying'' commercial developments around their revered mountain.
The gathering was attended by more than 40 Natives, with some traveling from as far away as Canada to pray and honor the lands. Bear Butte is considered sacred to dozens of Native nations, including the Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho tribes, some of which own small sections of land near the mountain.
The 4,422-foot peak has been used for thousands of years as a religious and commemorative place for vision quests, ceremonies of passage and renewal, spiritual offerings and medicine gatherings.
In recent years, economic development in the form of bars, concert venues and campgrounds has become increasingly upsetting to Indians who have long made religious pilgrimages to the site. About a dozen developments currently operate in close proximity to the mountain, many of which have been built since 2006 in an attempt to lure bikers and tourists to the area.
Tamra Brennan, founder of the grass-roots organization Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation, lives near the base of the mountain. She said that noise from motorcycle rallies and drunken partiers, as well as fireworks and flashing strobe lights that are sometimes shone onto the mountain, have disrupted the sacred lands.
''The struggle has gotten difficult over the last few months,'' Brennan, Eastern Cherokee, said. ''It's been hard to keep people informed on new developments. The issue is a lot more critical now than even a few years ago.''
Brennan and others are urging the Meade County Commission to deny alcohol licenses for the Broken Spoke Campground, which they say is one of the most disruptive developments in the area.
Originally called Sturgis County Line Bar, the two-story, 25,000-square-foot venue is in transition to be operated by Boston-based Target Logistics, an international company that provides housing, transportation, life support and hospitality services. The property was previously under the sole management of developer Jay Allen, who lost his alcohol license last year due to character issues.
Developers with Broken Spoke recently expressed interest in offering helicopter rides over the mountain, which further angered Natives in the area. The Native American Rights Fund has consulted with local Indians on helping to legally stop the rides under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Developers have also pursued plans to build a concert stadium and an RV park in addition to the bar already on the grounds.
''It's going to make it practically impossible to pray in peace,'' Brennan said.
Target Logistics President Joe Murphy has said in the past that he is ''happy to sit down and listen to our critics'' and that he is ''respectful'' of his critics' religious views. He could not be reached by press time for further comment.
The commission's meeting to determine whether the campground will get its alcohol license is scheduled for July 1. Brennan's organization is encouraging tribal members from throughout the region to make their voices heard prior to meeting day. Organizers believe that visitors will be discouraged from frequenting the venue, if liquor cannot be served.
The National Congress of American Indians is opposed to the alcohol license application submitted by Broken Spoke.
''Both the location and the character of the applicant are unsuitable for any alcohol licenses,'' according to a letter sent by NCAI to the Meade County Commission.
The organization also recommended that county commissioners ''use their broad discretion over alcohol licenses to begin government-to-government consultation with affected local Indian tribes to establish notification and consultation procedures for decisions that affect religious practice at Bear Butte and all American Indian sacred sites.''
Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and some state legislators have also tried to conserve and protect lands around Bear Butte, but have been unsuccessful to date.
Alberta Fischer, a Montana-based Northern Cheyenne elder, said she is hopeful that the damages she's seen as a result of the developments will one day end. She first started making treks to the mountain as a young girl when she watched her grandparents and parents pray and perform religious ceremonies there.
''I grew up with it. I know the true significance of that mountain. It's been a part of my life, which is why I'm opposed to any development. I'm not afraid to speak on behalf of the mountain.
''There's going to be somebody who will listen to us one of these days. And that's what I pray for.''
Bear Butte was listed as a National Natural Landmark in 1965, as a National Historical Place in 1973 and as a National Historic Landmark in 1981. It has been on the National Historic Landmarks threat level watch list since 2004.
For more information, visit www.ProtectBearButte.com.