Excerpt: Great Plains Indians

The following excerpt comes from Great Plains Indians (Bison Books, 2016) by David J. Wishart, the first book in the Discover the Great Plains Series published with the Center for Great Plains Studies.

From Chapter 4: Against All Odds

Sacred and Profane Places

Throughout the Great Plains there are sacred places venerated by Americans in general—a myriad of churches and graveyards and scenic landscapes like the last remaining preserves of tallgrass prairie, the unworldly Badlands, and the Black Hills themselves, sacred at least in a patriotic sense, with four presidents’ faces carved on Mount Rushmore. But largely hidden from the American mainstream are innumerable places that are sacred to Plains Indians, an alternative, deeper geography going back centuries to a time before the land was squared off, claimed, and dug over.

Some of the sacred places are revered as the sites of the original creation, such as those laid down for the Blackfeet by Old Man on his journey through Montana and Alberta. Some are medicine wheels, circular rock structures that may be diagrams of the heavens. The Moose Mountain medicine wheel, for example, in Saskatchewan, is aligned to the summer solstice sunrise, and Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel, high in the mountains overlooking the plains, has six cairns on its perimeter that are oriented to where important stars rise at dawn. Many other sacred sites, including the Pawnee’s Pa:huk, are retreats where particular rituals take place. Pawnee medicine men would go to Pa:huk each year to fast and dream and renew their healing powers. Even today, when Oklahoma Pawnees visit the old country in Nebraska, Pa:huk is one of their first priorities. The religions of Plains Indians are still lodged in sacred places and kept vibrant by performing ceremonies there, just as their ancestors did before them.


There is probably no Indian place on the Great Plains more sacred than Bear Butte in South Dakota. Many Plains tribes, from Canada to Texas, visit Bear Butte to pay their respects, but for the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, especially, it is a sacred altar. This is where the Sioux were presented with the star map that subsequently oriented their spiritual life and where the mythic Cheyenne prophet, Sweet Medicine, received the four sacred arrows that are at the heart of their religious beliefs. To add to the power of the place, the great Sioux war chief and medicine man, Crazy Horse, was born near Bear Butte around 1840; undertook the hanblecheyapi, or “vision quest,” there in 1871; and may well be buried in its sacred soil.

Bear Butte is a laccolith, a volcanic intrusion standing more than a thousand feet above the surrounding plains, just to the northeast of the Black Hills (fig. 17). Viewed from the ground, it resembles a sleeping grizzly bear. To the Sioux, Bear Butte is the sanctuary where the vision quest takes place. Young men, after a long period of preparation, including sweat lodges and instruction from a holy man, repair to Bear Butte, seeking a vision that would guide their lives. At Bear Butte, inside a scared circle of flags, tobacco ties, and sage, the young man fasts and humbles himself, hoping, as an old Sioux explained in an interview with geographer Kari Forbes Boyte in 1996, to “see dreams that are real, dreams that have survived the generations.” The vision seeker then descends the cosmic mountain, and the holy man who had prepared him helps to interpret what he has seen. This knowledge is not just for the individual but for the benefit of all the society: in the words of Sioux elder Nellie Red Owl, the vision seekers “pray for our food, for our children to grow strong. When they pray, God answers them.”

Solitude is essential for the vision quest, but Bear Butte no longer provides it. Bear Butte is also a state park, run by South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks with an operating philosophy of multiple use, including tourism. Bear Butte is now a prime example of how difficult it is for Indians to preserve the integrity of their sacred sites—and maintain the ceremonies that take place there—as the modern world crowds in all around.

As a state park, Bear Butte is open to all for recreational activities. Hiking trails cross the mountain, and observation platforms allow the scenery to be appreciated in all its grandeur. They also afford access to the Indians’ most sacred retreats, so much so that Sioux have been forced to pursue their vision quests elsewhere, in more remote locations. The connection between the ritual and the place has been compromised: as the Sioux holy man Richard Two Dogs explained in 1996, “The religion is rooted in the lands. And you can’t have religion without the land.”

In 1982 the Sioux and Cheyennes brought suit in federal district court, claiming a right to unrestricted religious use of Bear Butte and demanding a discontinuation of any further development there. Despite nominal protection under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (which had been passed by Congress in 1978 to secure Indian religions and holy sites), the unfavorable ruling in their case, Fools Crow v. Gullet, was that the Indians had not proven that Bear Butte was “central and indispensable to their religion.” That ruling was confirmed upon appeal to the Court of Claims.

To its credit, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks has taken steps to accommodate the Indians’ religious needs. It has built a trail exclusively for Indian worshippers, waived the entrance fee for those seeking to pray, and urged non-Indians to respect the sacred circles. But it is not enough: the agency’s multiuse policy is just not compatible with the Indians’ need for solitude. The Sioux have requested that the park be set aside for their exclusive use in June and July, the main months for the vision quest. But those, of course, are also the main tourist months, so the Indians’ request is unlikely to be honored. One despairing Sioux expressed his fear that without the prayers the sacredness of Bear Butte will fade, until one day all that will be left are signs saying “Indians used to pray here.”

The problem is not only competing land uses at the site but also commercial developments around Bear Butte that intrude on the silence and darkness of the mountain. The city of Sturgis, which attracts about a half million motorcyclists each August, is only a few miles away. Developers have put on rock concerts and have built bars, campgrounds, and vast parking lots on the fringes of Bear Butte. There are plans for a shooting range nearby, and, if approved, the sound of gunfire would echo up the mountain. There are prospects for oil drilling, and gas flares would illuminate the night and obscure the stars. To the Indians, all of these developments add up to the desecration of a profoundly sacred place.


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