By JODI RAVE, The Missoulian - 07/30/2006
T.J. Afraid of Hawk is helping organize an indigenous summit at the base of Bear Butte in South Dakota, a place sacred to more than 30 tribes but soon to be a neighbor to the world’s biggest biker bar.
The Summit of Indigenous Nations, scheduled Aug. 1-4, will help prepare Indian people to reach out to state legislators, county commissioners and federal lawmakers as they try to preserve sacred land areas.
Bear Butte tops the list of tribal concerns.
“Right now, they just know Native Americans hold it sacred, but we want them to know it’s our place of prayer,” said the Lakota woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “They don’t understand because they don’t see us there all year round. Lakota people never stayed there because it was too sacred. We went there for our prayers and we left.”
But biker bar mogul Jay Allen, an Arizona businessman, is in the middle of creating a permanent presence less than 2 miles from the butte where Indians pray and perform ceremonies during about five months of the year. Allen has already broken ground for a 150,000-square-foot chunk of asphalt for trucks and for bikers to drink at his bar. A 30,000-seat amphitheater for concerts is also in the works.
“It’s the biggest biker bar we’ve ever seen,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Alex White Plume, a summit organizer. “It’s so humongous that it just frightens us.”
Allen is billing his venue as a “safe haven” for two-wheel motorheads. He urges bikers on his Web site to help “make Sturgis County Line and the Broken Spoke Saloon their new 600-acre home.”
The saloon will cater to the half-million bikers who converge annually upon South Dakota’s Black Hills for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 7.
Already, Allen’s biker haven is butting up against Indian heaven.
“As you sit in our camp, you can look up on the horizon and see all his buildings right now,” said Vic Camp, an organizer of the InterTribal Coalition to Defend Bear Butte. “He has huge crews out there right now.”
“I myself just got done sitting on the hill praying and I had to deal with the bikes and the cars,” said Camp. “And it ain’t even the rally time yet.”
Native people have been praying at Bear Butte bear near Sturgis, S.D., for unknown millennia. Natives don’t need a roof over their heads to pray.
At Bear Butte, they pray under the sky.
“That’s our holy place,” said White Plume. “That’s our church.”
But the concept was lost on South Dakota’s Meade County commissioners, who unanimously approved Allen’s permit for a liquor license. The commissioners argued that state law gave them the right to issue building permits based on a business owner’s character and to consider location. An alcohol license wouldn’t be issued, for example, near a church or a school.
The Meade County commissioners are being too narrow minded, said Tim Coulter, an international indigenous human rights expert and director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena. “They are behaving as if those detailed local laws are the only law they have to comply with, but there are other laws, greater laws, particularly international law, that do need to be taken into consideration.
“They’re wrong if they think complying with local liquor laws is their only consideration.”
The chair of the county commissioners did not return phone calls on Friday.
Customary international law of human rights is binding, and it includes the right to practice one’s culture with freedom, Coulter said. “I don’t blame them for not knowing about it, but we’re calling it to their attention now. They may begin to understand that this is more important than they thought. There’s more at stake than they thought. There’s more damage being done than they thought. The rules are a little different than they thought.”
Robert Simpson, a Northern Cheyenne from Montana, plans to go to Bear Butte or Mato Paha to pray and fast in September. “If you get up on top of that mountain, you feel like you can reach out and touch heaven,” he said.
The area is sacred to his tribe because at one time “our people lived like savages, we lived any old way,” said Simpson. But a Cheyenne prophet was led to Bear Butte. “When he went there, those spirits and the Creator taught him.”
They gave him the tribe’s ceremonies including the Sundance, sweat lodge and marriage rites that are still practiced today.
Throughout his long life, the man continued “to go back there and get help from that mountain,” said Simpson, who worries whether his children will ever have a chance to pray in peace at the sacred site, which is hard to do with “50,000 bikers jamming out to Aerosmith,” he said.
“It’s a bad feeling. As Indian people we don’t have nothing. All we got is our spirituality. And they’re taking that from us, too.”
Organizers of the upcoming indigenous summit have had a presence at Bear Butte, which is part of a state park, since July 4. “It’s a beautiful camp,” said White Plume. “We always get angry. We make jokes the Oglala, we’re the only ones who are still hostile, but when you get under the butte, it’s such a wonderful, spiritual feeling that you can’t do nothing but be happy and enjoy it.
“And then we leave from Bear Butte and we’ve all observed this but when you get to the boundaries of the reservation, you can just feel the weight of the oppression. You just slump over.”
Nearly 200 Native advocates were already at Bear Butte on Friday for the week’s upcoming activities. “We’re frantically raising money so we can keep everyone fed,” said White Plume. A march has been scheduled for Wednesday. And an international indigenous day was slated for Friday.
Organizers hope their presence will help others understand why they want to preserve Bear Butte. It’s more than a simple matter of rescheduling ceremonies like some have suggested, said White Plume.
Tribal representatives from Washington to Florida are expected to attend, drawing an estimated 1,000 people.
“Americans want to say they’re proud,” said White Plume. “But how can they be proud when there are blatant violations of our ways going on?”