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Bear Butte is sacred to the Lakota and Cheyenne.
Bear Butte is sacred to the Lakota and Cheyenne.
Sunset on Thunder Butte.
Sunset on Thunder Butte.
Blue-eyed grass in bloom amongst the Slim Buttes.
Blue-eyed grass in bloom amongst the Slim Buttes.
Western Wallflower with Thunder Butte in the distance.
Western Wallflower with Thunder Butte in the distance.
A Castle Rock formation in the Slim Buttes.
A Castle Rock formation in the Slim Buttes.
Thunder Butte was a landmark for Hugh Glass on his crawl across the prairies.
Thunder Butte was a landmark for Hugh Glass on his crawl across the prairies.
The Ziebach County landform is located on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
The Ziebach County landform is located on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Site of a brutal battle in 1876, the Slim Buttes appear peaceful in this 2011 picture.
Site of a brutal battle in 1876, the Slim Buttes appear peaceful in this 2011 picture.
A late December sunset on Bear Butte.
A late December sunset on Bear Butte.

Butte Country

Jan 23, 2012

There is something poetic about a lone butte rising from western South Dakota’s grassy seas of rolling plains. These lonely landforms not only break up the horizon, but are important landmarks and points of reference to local residents. Often a person will tell you where his ranch or land is based on the proximity of the nearest butte.

Buttes also play an interesting role in the history of the area. Bear Butte, near Sturgis, is still considered a sacred religious site for both the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes. Thunder Butte was famously used as a landmark for mountain man Hugh Glass on his crawl across the prairies after being mauled by a grizzly bear on the Grand River. The Slim Buttes bear sad memory of a brutal battle fought a few months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Besides the history, I also find the names of the buttes quite interesting. To me they have a touch of romanticism to them. For example, it doesn’t take much to imagine riding herd at Blackhorse Butte or surveying the plains with the keen eye of a majestic Golden Eagle perched on Eagle Butte. Many times, the names of buttes were derived by what the butte looks like. Haystack Butte and Castle Rock Butte along Highway 79 north of Newell are good examples of this. Other buttes have interesting stories and legends that the names come from. In a history of Ziebach County, the Native American name for Thunder Butte is given as "Wakanganhotan." The meaning is said to be "place of holy thunder." I’ve heard people say that the Lakota thought that all thunder or thunderstorms originated from Thunder Butte. However I’m pretty sure that this hand-me-down story is more legend and corrupted speculation than the real origin of the name. Regardless, the butte holds a lot of meaning to me as I grew up within sight of it on the western horizon.

One of my favorite older photos is of the sun setting on top of Thunder Butte on a late August day in 1994. It was a high overcast afternoon, and I could tell it was going to be a good sunset. I grabbed my camera and hurriedly got into my dad’s old blue Chevy work pick-up and headed west. As I was driving I got the idea to line up the photo so the sun would appear to set on the butte. In order to do this, I had to cover a lot of ground in a short time as well as veer off the trail. I’m sure my dad would not have approved if he saw me cruising over the open prairie at a speed that caused the toolboxes and fencing gear to bounce quite vigorously. The good news is that he never knew — well that is, until he reads this article. I think the photo was worth it though.

This December, I finally really saw the “bear” in Bear Butte. I was shooting an old barn and sunset just southwest of the butte and in the fading light I began to make out the slumbering bear. It was actually quite a magical moment. Someday I plan to climb that butte. When I do, I’m sure I’ll feel very small in a very large world. I’ve felt it before while on the top of Thunder Butte. To be on a high place looking down on the beauty of creation is a humbling yet wonderful thing. I suppose “sacred” is another very good word for it.

 

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

Comments

09:04 am - Mon, January 23 2012
Rebecca said:
I love your Bear Butte photo!
12:28 pm - Mon, January 23 2012
John Andrews said:
I've never been able to discern the Bear in Bear Butte. Does your photo show it, or do you have to look from a different angle?
12:49 pm - Mon, January 23 2012
Christian said:
The sunset/silhouette shot of Bear Butte shows the "bear" best. Think of a bear sleeping on it's side with it's head out straight ahead of the body. The head is to the left in the photo with the shoulder being the next hump of the butte, followed by the body (imagine the legs on the other side of the butte.) The angles are a little sharp, but with a little imagination you can make it out.

Also, to make a clarifcation on the directions in my article. I took that photo southeast of the butte looking northwest. It is an angle not usually seen as it is on a gravel road and not one of the main highways.
05:40 am - Tue, January 24 2012
Some super photos..... I'm still having some trouble making out "the bear"..Is there any way the photo could be "edited" to give a clearer picture of "the bear"?
If you could do this....it would be fantastic....I've asked lots of people and so far, this is the closest answer to "where is the bear in Bear Butte".
Again...some really nice photos.... Thanks.
04:41 am - Thu, January 26 2012
anonymous said:
Looks great, were any of these Photos taken over Christmas?
09:12 am - Wed, February 15 2012
Chad Coppess said:
I talked to Bear Butte State Park Manager Jim Jandreau this morning and he helped me illustrate the "bear." You can see my interpretation at http://www.dakotagraph.com/2012/02/bear-butte-bear-illustrated.html.
10:34 pm - Sat, February 25 2012
Lorelie L. Falzerano-Barth said:
Can people purchase any the photographs shown on this website? I especially love the photo of Bear Butte.
06:32 am - Mon, February 27 2012
Laura Johnson said:
Hi Lorelie,
You'll need to contact the photographer directly to find out. Christian Begeman, who took the butte photos seen in this column, can be contacted through his blog: http://www.blogger.com/profile/12400942871961343140

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