PIERRE, S.D. - After Sen. John McCain made a campaign stop Aug. 4 at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, much attention was paid to a joke he made about having his wife, Cindy, run for the Miss Buffalo Chip beauty contest crown - a feat that would require her to wear a skimpy bikini and perform risque dance moves in front of the rally;s thousands of rowdy partygoers.
Several tribal leaders were not only taken aback by the statement, but were also let down that McCain would choose to visit a rally featuring nudity and drunken behavior while not trying to schedule a meeting with a single tribal nation. And many Natives have long been asking for a halt to the very rowdiness in which McCain chose to participate - out of respect to the nearby Bear Butte Mountain, a sacred site for multiple tribes nationwide.
A. Gay Kingman, director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, said that she extended an invitation to the McCain campaign in mid-July, soon after she learned the presumptive GOP candidate would be traveling to the area. The idea was to have McCain meet with the more than a dozen elected chairs and presidents of sovereign Indian nations in the Dakota region that are represented by the association.
Tribal leaders wanted to talk with McCain on several areas of substance, including the need for reservation jobs and improved tribal resources, as well as law enforcement and judiciary issues.
''It's a total disappointment,'' said Kingman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. ''Many of us have known Sen. McCain - and even testified before him when he was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.''
She noted that McCain's schedule even allowed for him to spend the night in the region, so she feels he couldn't have been that pressed for time.
''I think the presidential candidates are very protected. I don't know if the senator himself even knew that the Indian tribes wanted to meet with him. I just can't see him purposely choosing not to meet with us.''
John Tahsuda, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma who used to work for McCain on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, tried to help Kingman with her request but was unsuccessful. Tribal leaders also contacted staffers of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., since he has been a strong backer of Indian issues and is close to McCain, but nothing came of that outreach, either.
Tom Steward, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said it was his understanding that the candidate did not schedule time to meet with tribal leaders while in the region because there ''was not much local time overall for meetings.''
He added that McCain has been a longtime leader on Indian issues, and ''had in mind'' American Indians who served in the military during his Sturgis appearance.
Earlier in August, McCain faced strong criticism from members of the Native American Journalists Association, who noted that he skipped a long-planned minority journalist event.
Some Indians feel that Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate, has done a better job at reaching out to Great Plains tribes, noting that he met with tribal leaders in the area during the primary season this spring.
The Sturgis Rally is held each summer on private grounds. It, along with several other venues in the region, annually plays host to tens of thousands of bikers and tourists. Many come decked in leather, and some tend to overindulge in drinking and noisemaking.
Several Native activists tried unsuccessfully in June to get the Meade County Commission to deny alcohol licenses for the nearby Broken Spoke Campground, which they said was one of the most disruptive developments in the area. Since then, other bars and venues, including Buffalo Chip Campground, home to the rally, have begun offering helicopter rides near Bear Butte.
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.
Instead of standing up for Indian religious rights and sacred beliefs, McCain was seen by some Natives as actually harming them with his visit to the area. While the senator from Arizona stated publicly he wanted to pay respect to the many veterans who attend the rally each year, some Indians felt he could have done so at any number of nearby veteran facilities that do not disrupt Bear Butte.
''I think he could have gotten his message out in support of the veterans at a venue that was more generic,'' Kingman said. ''He just didn't make a good show of respect to Indians.''
Tamra Brennan, founder of the grass-roots organization Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation, said McCain's event caused much more ''wall-to-wall traffic'' to the area than she's seen in the past. She described his appearance as contributing to an atmosphere of ''absolute chaos.''
''For him to come to a venue such as Buffalo Chip - which is very well known for its nudity and drunken behavior - seems a little strange,'' Brennan said. She's been working overtime this summer to raise awareness 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.
Brennan, who lives near the base of the mountain, said she doesn't think McCain cares about sacred site issues at all, especially considering that he didn't visit any reservations.
''I don't think we even had a chance at being on his radar,'' said Brennan, Eastern Cherokee. ''I feel that the Native community was shunned. And we won't soon forget it.''