Skip to main content

White Face: How do you explain the holiness of a mountain range?

The winter has come again. Snow dances on the ground tickling the cuffs of pant legs as it blends together in slippery sheets of ice. The clouds completely surround her shoulders and head and body as she lies on her side, this mountain known as Bear Butte.

Our footsteps crunch in the small drifts that cover clumps of dry yellow grass. The silence is tangible. Each step seems an intrusion. A single pine tree, barely middle-aged for trees, stands alone in a clearing as the ground begins its upward swell. The puffy, gray-white clouds completely enshroud the higher slopes like a shawl. We start walking toward the fluffy dark green tree, its boughs bending with a thick frosting of white. A snow bird darts out from a bush then quickly whirls back in. Our footfalls slightly echo in the still. Approaching the tree, we notice a few tobacco ties are wrapped around a branch.

We stop in front of the tree and acknowledge its presence with a loving gaze and salutary thoughts. As we turn to face the reclining head, pieces of giant granite protrusions fade in and out of the covering clouds. My gaze travels across a small ravine where only weeks ago we walked amid wildflowers looking for the perfect place to lay our gifts for the Creator. It travels past the rolling prairies to begin scanning the foothills of the sacred He'Sapa, the place known as the Black Hills.

In the enfolding silence, it is easy to feel the special sacredness known as Bear Butte. It is easy for non-believers to understand how a single mountain could be holy. It is easy to begin making references to places such as Mount Sinai. But it is harder to realize that a whole chain of mountains could in and of themselves completely be holy. That is the harder part for people in this 21st century to even try to comprehend.

I look at the He'Sapa and am filled with an all-encompassing sadness. Is it possible to comprehend, I wonder, the sadness and grief that must have been felt by my great-grandparents?

It is said that before anyone entered the He'Sapa, they would go through a purification ceremony. Yet, Custer and his soldiers traveled the length and knew nothing, let alone cared to learn, of the holiness of this place. How could a whole chain of mountains be sacred? Surely there must be some demarcation? Then any thought of sacredness disappeared with the appearance of gold. And so the rest is history.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The entire Black Hills has been logged at least once. In 1920, the area around Harney Peak where Black Elk prayed, was given a wilderness designation. However, in August 2002, a federal bill was passed opening it up to logging again. The last and largest old growth trees in the entire Black Hills are now threatened by a loggers saw.

In another roadless area called Beaver Park, the already dead trees, killed by beetles, rather than being left to become the food of insects, molds, and fungus, are also falling midst the sound of chainsaws. Some are not dead but are still on the chopping block. Sadly, in the logging process, prayer and burial sites will be destroyed by the machines that build the roads, or pull the logs out by chains. The U.S. Forest Service can't protect these special, irreplaceable places because they haven't even surveyed the entire area. Nor can any of the tribes protect these ancestral sites since the federal bill prohibits taking the Forest Service to court. (Unconstitutional, yes, but so is breaking the treaty in which the Black Hills are located.)

Like innumerable spots of measles, houses are being built all over the sacred mountains. Nesting habitat is threatened time and again when applications are presented to the Forest Service to build driveways to private mansions. Does anybody check to see if the building is destroying a sacred prayer site? Does anybody care?

Giant protrusions of rock called feldspar are blown to bits inside the sacred Black Hills. The surface mining operations are the first line in the production of porcelain. Every time we lift a cup of coffee in a porcelain mug, was that shiny covering made from a place that for thousands of years was a sacred site? The other more than 200 shaft mines are more subdued, with the exception of the tourist attraction in the historic town of Deadwood, the miles-deep open pit mine from which gold was extracted. But what was there for thousands of years before? What was there for the innumerable generations of Indigenous people prior to the unholy intrusion?

The list could go on. My mind goes back to the activity at hand. My grandparents and great-grandparents would be happy to know I still remember. It's not easy to forget. The destruction of holiness is never easy to forget.

My nephew begins a sacred song that carries in the stillness that surrounds the presence of Bear Butte. My soul is comforted knowing his young years will carry this song after I go to the other side. Yet, while I am here, what can I do? What can I do to stop the destruction of these sacred places? How do you teach people who can't understand the personness of the Earth? How do you explain the holiness of an entire chain of mountains?

Charmaine White Face, Zumila Wobaga, is a grandmother, a freelance writer and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or the Oglala band of the Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin. She may be contacted at