Sturgis, South Dakota, is a town of about 6,500 people, but come August the population explodes, as half a million bikers and motorcycle enthusiasts ride in like cowboys, clad in leather vests and bandannas for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This year’s event, however, promises to be met with resistance from the area’s original inhabitants and other First Nation peoples from across the continent. They are protesting not only the onslaught of bikers but also a development at the base of a sacred hill outside of Sturgis called Bear Butte.
“I have a hard time in the white man’s way. They pray to this guy called God, but he’s gold. It’s all about the almighty dollar. Their priorities are money,” said Alexander White Plume in a phone interview from his home in Manderson, South Dakota. White Plume is acting president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and he, along with hundreds of others, organized protests and spoke at recent public hearings over whether or not a liquor license should be given to Arizona businessman Jay Allen, who plans to build a 600-acre biker extravaganza adjacent to Bear Butte.
Allen operates an interstate chain of four biker bars called Broken Spoke Saloon, including one in Sturgis, which bills itself as the largest biker bar in the world.
Meade County Commissioners voted unanimously in April to grant a beer and malt beverage license to Allen for this new saloon in his chain, and then voted in June to allow transfer of a liquor license to the venue.
The original name of Allen’s project was Sacred Grounds, and until Lakota and other nations raised objections, Allen intended to erect on the site an eighty-foot-high statue of a Native person praying. From Allen’s perspective, he has treated the indigenous population fairly, noting through a spokeswoman that local tribes had passed up two opportunities to purchase the land he ultimately acquired.
At issue on both sides of this argument over the proposed development is more than expropriation of the intellectual property of indigenous peoples. It is a reminder of the vast cultural differences that exist between First Nation peoples and those who are drawn to what once was their tribal land.
One only needs to read Article 1 of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and compare it with what has happened over time to understand the profound conflict between the two competing paradigms: “From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall forever cease. The Government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it. The Indians desire peace, and they now pledge their honor to maintain it.”
Enacted by Congress, the treaty codified the Sioux Nations’ ownership of the Black Hills. But the treaty’s opening words, “From this day forward,” really only meant for the next six years, because in 1874 General George Custer and some nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, known back then as miners, breached the treaty and found gold in the Black Hills, reigniting what are called the Indian wars. Eventually those events led to white settlers hunting down Natives and either forcing them onto reservations or, as happened at Wounded Knee, disarming them and then murdering them.