Bear Butte in South Dakota is a sacred site which is used as a vision quest site for the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne. The Sioux describe Bear Butte as their most sacred altar. The Seven Sacred Rites of the Sioux were learned at the top of this mesa.
The view from Bear Butte is shown above.
For the Cheyenne, Bear Butte is known as Sacred Mountain and is the place where Maheo (the Supreme Being) gave their cultural hero, Sweet Medicine, the four Sacred Arrows, which allowed them access to Maheo’s power. The Cheyenne call this place Noahavose (also spelled Nowah’wus which means “The Hills Where the People are Taught”). On their historic migration to the Plains under the leadership of Sweet Medicine, a great door opened in Noahavose. Sweet Medicine was called inside by Maheo (the All Being). For four years Sweet Medicine remained in this lodge within and was instructed in the codes of law and behavior. Before returning to his people, Sweet Medicine was then given four sacred arrows. Thus, this is the holiest site in the Cheyenne world.
The Sioux Vision Quest:
Bear Butte is an important site for the Sioux vision quest, known as hamblecha. During the vision quest, the seeker finds a solitary place on Bear Butte to sing and pray out loud. Vision quest supporters wait below and sing songs and pray. Instruction and preparation for hamblecha can take a full year and may include a four-year commitment to the teacher with an expectation to repeat the quest on each of four years. At one time, those seeking the vision would stake themselves to a single place by placing a hardwood skewer under the skin of the chest and attaching a leather thong between this skewer and a stake in the ground.
Prior to the vision quest, the seeker goes through a sweat lodge ceremony in order to cast off all human fleshly influences. With regard to the completion of the vision quest, Sioux physician Charles Eastman wrote:
“When he returned to the camp, he must remain at a distance until he had again entered the sweat lodge and prepared himself for intercourse with his fellows. Of the vision or sign vouchsafed to him he did not speak, unless it had included some commission which must be publicly fulfilled.”
In most visions, animals or birds appear and there is a correlation between the animal or bird and the type of power, knowledge or skill.
Among the Sioux, both men and women are able to receive power through a vision. Those who receive the strongest powers become medicine people or shamans.
In 1962, Bear Butte was acquired by the State of South Dakota for development as a State Park. As a State Park it was to have a visitor’s center, campgrounds, and parking lots. Tourists were to be given maps to its trails and provided with viewing platforms and signs that indicated where Indians could be spotted fasting. Instead of understanding the vision quest as a religious ceremony, the tourists would view it the same way that they viewed the powwows: once again the Indians would be on display.
During a vision quest at Bear Butte in 1965 Sioux spiritual leader Frank Fools Crow was told in his vision that he was to tell certain things about himself and his people. The result was the 1979 book Fools Crow edited by Thomas Mails.
In 1973, Bear Butte was listed as a National Historical Place. In 1981 Bear Butte was listed as a National Historical Landmark.
In 1982, a group of traditional Sioux spiritual leaders, including Frank Fools Crow, filed suit against the South Dakota State Parks Department. In the case of Fools Crow versus Gullet, the Sioux traditionalists argued that the South Dakota State Parks Department had destroyed the sanctity of Indian religious ceremonies at Bear Butte. They argued that the state’s construction of access roads, parking lots, and other facilities, including wood platforms to allow tourists to photograph sacred ceremonies, interfered with their free exercise of religion. The courts, however, found that granting Indian rights would violate separation of church and state. With regard to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the courts noted that it was unclear if the Act governs state governments or agencies. The court agreed that Bear Butte was vital to the exercise of Lakota and Cheyenne religion. However, it rejected the argument that the state’s management of the site interfered with the free exercise of their religion. The decision was upheld by the Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
In 1982, the manager of Bear Butte State Park sent out a notice to Sioux and Cheyenne leaders informing them that they could no longer gather sage, hackberry or wild rose within the park. Furthermore, there could be no sweat lodges held while the parking lot was being expanded and the new access roads were being paved. Finally, all Indians would have to purchase five-day permits in order to fast and pray at this sacred site.
A 1996 fire on Bear Butte burned more than 800 acres of timber and grass. Some traditional spiritual leaders felt that the fire was a cleansing of the misuse of this sacred area. This misuse included complaints about non-Indians attempting to do ceremonies they know nothing about; the removal of tobacco ties and flags by Indians because of concerns that they would be touched and/or taken by non-Indians; and by some incidents of drunkenness and nudity.
The federal government extended cultural property designation status to Bear Butte in 1997. This designation not only highlights the historic and cultural associations of Bear Butte with the Plains Indians, but it also provides some protection to the site and provides guidelines to preserve it.
In 2003, a shooting range was proposed near Bear Butte. The complex was to be built with a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead of contacting the tribes, the builders notified the state Office of Tribal Government Relations of their plans. Indian officials pointed out that this office did not speak for all of the 17 tribes which use Bear Butte for ceremonies. Indian spiritual leaders pointed out that the estimated 10,000 rounds per day being fired from rifles and handguns would affect the silence and serenity of the people who come to Bear Butte to pray and seek spiritual guidance. The state of South Dakota cancelled the $511,200 in federal grant money.
In 2004, Northern Cheyenne tribal councilman Alberta Fisher and councilman Jace Killsback purchased a 160-acre campground at the base of Noavose (Bear Butte). The Cheyenne Land Authority constructed camping structures, shades, and outhouses for use by tribal members during ceremonies.
In 2006, Alex White Plume, the President of the Olgala Lakota Nation, wrote to President George W. Bush regarding the Lakota’s sacred site at Bear Butte:
“Indian peoples’ ability to survive into the future depends largely on our ability to maintain, protect and promote our traditional and cultural beliefs, which includes our ability to practice our spiritual beliefs in privacy and without disruption. This is not merely a cultural and spiritual concern; it is a matter of human rights that exist in international law.”
The President did not respond.
In 2011, the State Board of Minerals and Environment ruled that Nakota Energy could drill exploratory oil wells near Bear Butte. The company was to be allowed to drill five wells outside of the boundaries of the Bear Butte National Historic Landmark. The company did not initially consult with the tribes as the proposed oil field is on private land. However, about one-third of the original proposed drilling area is within the boundaries of the state park. In response to Indian complaints, the Board of Minerals and Environment agreed to limit the number of wells and to require that they be drilled outside the boundary of the National Historic Site.
In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Bear Butte on its list of Most Endangered Places. The site was listed as endangered because of proposed wind and oil energy development. It is felt that this energy development would negatively impact the sacred site and degrade the cultural landscape.
In 2011, the South Dakota State Legislature voted to revise the procedure for reissuing certain alcoholic beverage licenses. While the tribes have opposed any licenses for venues surrounding Bear Butte, the new legislation means that liquor license renewal hearings will no longer be held.
At the present time, there are three tribes with a vested interest in Bear Butte, in that they own property and pay property taxes: The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe own 1,080 acres on the east side of the mountain; the Rosebud Sioux Tribe owns 40 acres on the north side; and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe owns 40 acres on the west side, 160 acres on the north side, and 440 acres on the northeast side.
According to the State Park website:
In most religions, specific areas or sites hold great spiritual significance. Bear Butte is such a place.
Many Native Americans see the mountain as a place where the creator has chosen to communicate with them through visions and prayer.
During your visit, you will see colorful pieces of cloth and small bundles or pouches hanging from the trees. These prayer cloths and tobacco ties represent the prayers offered by individuals during their worship. Please respect these offerings and leave them undisturbed.
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