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The Rugged Spirituality of Bear Butte
Jul 9, 2012
Just a few miles north and east of Sturgis, South Dakota is one of the most interesting places to visit in the state. No, I’m not talking about Buffalo Chip Campground or anything to do with the annual motorcycle rally. I’m talking about Bear Butte State Park. It is a place of vibrant history and rugged beauty as well as deep spiritual significance.
Rising over 1,200 feet above the surrounding prairie at an elevation of 4,426 feet above sea level, the butte has an interesting geological story too. Eons ago, volcanic activity forced magma up against the earth’s crust to push out rock. For some reason, the volcano failed to erupt. Time, weather and wind eroded the landscape around the rocks to give us what we see as Bear Butte today.
Centuries later, the butte became a place of deep spiritual meaning to various Plains Indian tribes, the most recent being the Cheyenne and the Lakota (or Sioux). Sweet Medicine of the Cheyenne is often compared to Moses of Judaism and Christianity as he spent time as an exile on the butte where Ma'heo'o (God) met with him and gave him the basis of Cheyenne moral, spiritual, and political customs. Later the Sioux would hold annual councils at the base of the butte to gauge their strength for the year as well as catch up on the news of the land.
I’ve heard a couple accounts of the butte’s origin. One that has been attributed to the Lakota goes something like this; one day some children were out playing and a large bear they accidentally disturbed started chasing them. (Some retellings say one of the children was pretending to be a bear and actually changed into one.) The children outran the bear and climbed up on a large tree stump. As the bear approached the stump, the tree stump grew and grew and so did the bear. His claws raked the sides of the stump causing deep gashes on the side. Then an eagle rescued the children and flew them east and very high in the sky. The bear chased but soon grew weary and fell into a slumber at the foot of the Black Hills. The children became the constellation that we know as the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters). The bear became Bear Butte and the scarred tree stump is what we now know as Devil’s Tower in present-day Wyoming.
The Bear Butte region also echoes with many of the great names of the Old West. Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are all said to have been there often. According to some stories, Crazy Horse is even said to be buried somewhere near the butte. Custer and his infamous expedition to the Black Hills to confirm the stories of gold camped at the base of the butte as well. The Bismarck to Deadwood Stage Trail passed just to the west and north of the butte. In fact, you can still see evidence of the ruts at the marker on Cotton Creek Road a few miles north of the butte.
I had the honor of visiting with Jim Jandreau, the park manager, about the sacredness of the butte. He offered some keen insight as to why the place was considered holy. Not only is it a high and beautiful place, but the beauty is distinctly rugged and hard edged. Only spirits would live in a hard place like this and therefore it was reasoned that the butte must be very close to the spirit world. As you hike the butte, you will see numerous prayer flags and prayer offerings tied to branches along the way. Sometimes you will see homemade beadwork accompanying eagle’s feathers as well. A homemade gift is considered one of the highest honors to be given in Lakota culture.
I climbed the butte just after sunup on a Sunday morning. The landscape was hazy as a result of fires to the south and west. I was worried that my photos would suffer, but the butte was full of beauty I did not expect. Various wildflowers, birds and wildlife accompanied me on my hike. Later in the day a brief yet fierce thunderstorm rolled up and over the butte. As it passed, a rainbow appeared to the northeast. Then as the sun set, the departing storm clouds were painted pinks and purples. I couldn’t have asked for a better day in one of South Dakota’s most interesting and special state parks. It is my hope this place is kept and protected for all to experience for many years to come.
|A rainbow emerges after the storm.|
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on other South Dakota state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.