Humans have gathered at the formation for four millennia.
Crossing the South Dakota plains from the east, the traveler first sees the purplish Black Hills stretching across the western horizon. A singular massive peak stands apart, looming over the prairie as if placed there, a sentinel guarding the approaches to the hills. Bear Butte, which served as a landmark to early white explorers, is sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota Indians.
Four miles northeast of the Black Hills and standing 1,200 feet above the surrounding prairie, the butte traces its origins back 51 million years to the epoch in which the Black Hills first protruded from the earth’s surface. Molten rock pushed its way up through sedimentary rock but never broke the surface, instead hardening in place. This granite core forms the heart of Bear Butte. Its resident flora and fauna are typical of the northern Plains. Ponderosa pine and juniper trees, prairie grasses, flowers and yucca plants thrive on its slopes. Deer, buffalo, antelope, porcupines, hawks and eagles make their homes there. Carbon dating of ancient campfires attests to the presence of humans around Bear Butte for at least 4,000 years.
The Cheyenne people, who have lived in the northern Plains for hundreds of years, call the butte Noahvose, or “Place Where the People Were Taught.” Many years ago, according to their story, Cheyennes did not know how to live properly. A Cheyenne named Sweet Medicine killed another Cheyenne man who tried to take a buffalo kill from him. The Cheyennes banished Sweet Medicine from the village. In his wanderings, the outcast visited Noahvose, entered the butte and met Maheo, a great spirit who lived within the rock. Maheo gave Sweet Medicine knowledge to pass on to the Cheyenne people—how to organize the tribe and how to live together with respect for one another. Maheo also gave Sweet Medicine four sacred arrows to entrust to his people. The tribe accepted Sweet Medicine’s message, and ever since Cheyennes have been traveling in groups or alone to Noahvose to pray, worship and seek guidance. It remains one of the Cheyennes’ most sacred sites.
The Lakotas share that reverence. They dubbed the butte Mato Paha (“Bear Butte”), as it resembles a sleeping bear when viewed at certain angles from a distance. The Lakotas, too, have visited and lived in the area for hundreds of years. There they practice one of the seven virtues White Buffalo Calf Woman gave them—the vision quest, to seek wisdom from Wakan Tanka (their name for God). After purifying himself in inipi, a rebirth ceremony, a Lakota will climb to a sacred spot, where he will remain alone for four days and nights without food and water. During that time, he may receive visions from Wakan Tanka. He will then seek interpretation of his vision from an elder. Mato Paha remains a primary Lakota destination for vision quests and sacred ceremonies. To this day, Lakotas, Cheyennes and other American Indians leave strips of brightly colored cloth (prayer ties), tobacco, rocks and other items on Bear Butte as tokens of respect and worship.
Some historians say the first white men to see the butte were the Verendrye brothers, François and Louis-Joseph, from Three Rivers, Canada, who in 1742 were seeking a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. The Verendryes wrote about the “Mountain of the Horse People,” which might have been Bear Butte. Over the following century, westbound fur trappers and explorers often passed Bear Butte. The Lakotas were concerned about white men entering He Sapa (the Black Hills, also translated as Paha Sapa) and ran off or killed any outsiders they encountered. After fur trappers spread rumors of gold in the Black Hills, however, keeping away prospectors became virtually impossible.
In 1857 Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren, a U.S. Army civil engineer, led the first government-sponsored scientific and topographic expedition into the Black Hills. A young geologist, Ferdinand V. Hayden, and a 17-man military escort accompanied Warren out of Fort Laramie, traveling northeast. Earlier, Hayden had visited the Black Hills vicinity, and on March 9, 1855, he was probably the first white man to climb Bear Butte. When the men of the 1857 expedition arrived at Inyan Kara Mountain to the west of the Black Hills, they crossed paths with Lakota buffalo hunters and were warned not to enter He Sapa. Warren complied with their wishes, but his expedition did circle its foothills. Warren recorded the route and kept detailed topographic field notes for mapping purposes, while Hayden collected geologic specimens, finding trace gold in some of the creeks near Bear Butte.
That same year, Lakotas gathered at the base of Bear Butte for an important meeting, during which they agreed to prevent any white men from entering the Black Hills. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were among those in attendance.
In 1874 Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan directed Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer to lead a 1,000-man expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln (near present-day Bismarck, N.D.) through the Black Hills in search of sites for future forts and to confirm reports of gold. Nobody consulted the Lakotas, of course, and Custer’s prospectors did find gold.
As the expedition emerged from the Black Hills on Saturday, August 15, Custer rested his men six miles south of Bear Butte before marching back northeast to Fort Abraham Lincoln. Custer did not climb Bear Butte, but some of his officers did, and Custer’s photographer, William Illingworth, took a long-distance photograph of Bear Butte, among his last of the expedition.
Once word got out the rumors of gold had proven true, the military could not hold back the white tide from the Black Hills, though it initially tried. The rush was illegal; at the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the U.S. government had declared the hills would remain the “absolute and undisturbed” property of the Lakotas. Next came government attempts to buy the Black Hills, but the Lakotas refused to sell. Regardless, the whites kept coming (Deadwood and other gold communities emerged), so resentful Lakotas and their Cheyenne allies took out their frustrations on Custer and his command at the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When the government removed the Plains Indians to reservations, Bear Butte fell into private ownership. In 1878, with almost all the Lakotas on reservations or in Canada, rancher John D. Hale even kept a flock of 3,000 sheep in its foothills. Not until 1961 did the state government buy Bear Butte and make it part of South Dakota’s park system. Anyone can use the hiking trails today, but the state asks visitors to respect the Lakotas, Cheyennes and other native people who come to the butte to worship or seek a vision.
The tribes are concerned about those who might seek to exploit traditional use of Bear Butte for money. Indeed, the butte has attracted its share of New Age worshippers. And each August, motorcycle riders converge on the nearby town of Sturgis for a weeklong rally. During the popular event, hundreds of thousands of people flood the area around Bear Butte. Biker bars have sprung up in the area, and area campgrounds fill up. The resulting noise and commotion is hardly compatible with vision quests or spiritual awakening. Bear Butte State Park Manager Jim Jandreau remains optimistic: “Bear Butte, as a state park, preserves and respects the integrity of American Indian beliefs and uses of the sacred site while providing a place for visitors to experience the land and learn about indigenous cultures of the Plains.” Most people will drink to that.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.