Debate Magazine

Spirit of Bear Butte

By Cris

For nearly 10,000 years Native Americans have been visiting Bear Butte just north of the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa) in South Dakota. It’s not hard to understand why. Although Bear Butte is near the hills, it is not part of them. It rises out of the surrounding plains unexpectedly and stands like a great sentinel, alone. Bear Butte is not actually a butte formed by erosion but is instead a laccolith formed by magma injection. It’s an odd and magnificent geological feature. If approached from the north or any direction other than south (i.e., the Black Hills), it is striking in its isolation and mass. It isn’t hard to imagine large mammal hunters approaching it with awe and wonder after months of traversing the relatively featureless and unobstructed high northern plains.

Back in the day, when I used to attend the Sturgis Rally before it became an overblown commercialized mess of machine-madness, we used to ride around Bear Butte and admire it from afar. It was only an aesthetic admiration, given that I knew nothing of its significance to Natives past and present. Archaeological finds indicate that Paleoindians were there, as were many prehistoric Plains tribes. In the historic era, it was Arikara, Kiowa, and then Crow territory before the Cheyenne and Arapahoe edged them out. They, in turn, were pushed out by the Lakota. There are several accounts of large Lakota encampments around Bear Butte. Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, American Horse, Touch the Clouds and many others were regular visitors. It was a spiritual place, the site of sweat lodges, sun dances, and vision quests. Today, Natives from all nations visit for many of the same reasons.

Given this history, I have long wanted to go and give Bear Butte the attention and respect it deserves. On a recent trip I did just that and it did not disappoint.

It was only fitting that I arrived just as the Oglala Lakota were finishing their Spirit Run around the Black Hills. The Lakota say that the hills (which form an oval around the entire perimeter) were created by animals who ran so often and continuously around them that the surrounding earth was worn and lowered. The perimeter, in other words, was an animal racetrack. Today, Lakota runners make the same circuit over several days to pay homage and give respect. It was an honor to meet them at the finish and listen. The Lakota language has power, especially in that setting. Many thanks to Ben Good Buffalo for inviting us to join the circle.

As the sun was setting, we made camp on a small lake immediately south of the Butte. And as if on cue, we watched as a single low-hanging cloud swirled in strange circles and put on this magical show:






The next morning we awoke and approached the Butte, which was shrouded with slowly swirling mist:




The looping switch-back trail to the top is about 2 miles and has a vertical rise of nearly 1,000 feet. Because ceremonies are usually taking place at the base or at various places on the Butte, visitors are asked to whisper and be respectful. As you slowly ascend, the surrounding plains and nearby outcrops come into view:




I was accompanied by Paul Sandberg, who recently became a doctor of anthropology and teaches at CU-Boulder. Although Paul mostly does bones, teeth, isotopes, and statistics, he quite enjoyed Plains ethnohistory:


Here I am at about the mid-way point, where the Butte was really beginning to impress itself on us and its surroundings:






On our way up, the mist slowly lifted higher until it only cloaked the summit. Native prayer strips and bundles are all around, as was the sound of thunder and rays of sun. How perfect:




There was a South Dakota state park sign on the platform which audaciously announced that human remains were not to be left on the Butte. Never mind that the First Peoples have been doing just that for thousands of years. As is right, someone had scratched out the “rule,” which I’m sure is widely ignored.


Each tribe has preferred colors; I’m not familiar with them though I know the Lakota use red-white-black-yellow and the Cheyenne use blue-green-yellow. I also observed Crow and Pawnee colors around the Butte.



After being awed at the summit, we worked our way down this narrow trail — the scattered trees are remnants of a fire that swept over the Butte in 1996:


Can you imagine, as I can, this vista filled with buffalo herds and encampments:



While I suspected that my visit to Bear Butte would be good, I wasn’t really prepared for the eventual experience. It was powerful.

If you intend to visit (which you should), don’t do so in August. The crowds, noise, and idiocy that is Sturgis are all nearby — within sore eye and splitting earshot. I can’t think of a more inapt juxtaposition for the spirit of Bear Butte.

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