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.
Despite the dispossession of Native people and erosion of their sovereignty, the Lakota, Arapahoe and Cheyenne still go to Bear Butte to practice their religious ways. Scores of other nations have maintained connections to the butte since ancient times, making the journey there to pray much the way Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Lakota and other First Nations people aren’t the only ones opposed to Allen’s plans to develop Bear Butte as a haven for bikers. Some white ranchers and business owners say the Sturgis biker rally has gotten out of hand and have joined coalitions such as the Bear Butte International Alliance, which are planning to conduct civil disobedience training. Meade County, where Sturgis is located, boasts a population of only 25,000, but every year locals brace themselves for Rally Week because as many as 650,000 bikers have poured into Sturgis and the surrounding area.
Opponents of the Bear Butte development are expecting as many as 10,000 people to stand with them in solidarity to protest this intrusion on their land. When asked whether or not he believes there will be clashes between protesters and bikers, Alexander White Plume said, “We can’t defend Bear Butte violently because it is a sacred site. But our younger generation is talking about direct action.”
Meanwhile, Allen’s development is taking shape. He has announced plans to include a rodeo arena on the site by 2008, and he has said that although he respects the Native people, he has the right to conduct business. The state of South Dakota agrees with him, because none of the legal or moral objections put forth have held sway with legislators who earlier this year rejected legislation to create a four-mile buffer around Bear Butte. Hundreds of First Nation peoples traveled more than 200 miles to attend hearings and testify against granting the liquor license. But Bob Mallow, one of the five Meade County Commissioners who voted in favor of Allen’s request, said in a phone interview that none of the area’s residents spoke out against it.
“If there’s nothing there, we’re talking about two and a half miles from Bear Butte,” said Mallow. “The location is fine with us. It’s a municipality. If you have a church down the street two blocks, that makes sense, but this distance seems like enough.”
Allen, who has traveled to Sturgis annually since 1986, said he visits the butte every day during the rally and added that he wants to share the “magic of our precious 600 acres with not just the Native Americans but with anyone open to experiencing something greater than the common rally experiences.”
Even though county and state lawmakers have green-lighted the project, the First Nations peoples are undaunted in their quest to protect this religious site. Bear Butte is one of the last remaining undeveloped sacred sites in the United States.
“We want to keep it that way,” said White Plume. “Leave it in its original form. It’s where we go to do our vision quest. We do ceremonies that need silence. Putting a bar and concert hall there would be like us holding a powwow outside a synagogue when they’re praying.”