Planning on a sunrise hike up the Butte, we car camp in the Bear Butte State Park campground, located on Butte Butte Lake – the perfect spot – with an unobstructed view of Bear Butte and a lake loop trail for walking.
A gorgeous sunrise greets us this morning and we dress in its’ soft light. Ours is the first and only car in the parking lot. It is a 1.85-mile hike up the Summit Trail to the top of the butte. The dirt-covered narrow trail begins at the parking lot near the Education Center and zigzags up the rocky butte, gaining 1,000 feet elevation along the way.
During our ascent, a dark storm cloud approaches, and is split in half by the butte. We experience all the elements in their full glory – the fire of lighting, rain, and wind, as we trod the earthen path, ever upward. The golden light of the morning sun illuminating the prairie below us.
Mato Paha or Bear Mountain is the Lakota name given to this unique formation called Bear Butte. The mountain earned its nickname because of its resemblance to a bear sleeping on its side. Turns out this formation is a lone mountain, rather than a flat-topped butte as the name implies. It is one of several intrusions of igneous rock that formed millions of years ago along the northern edge of the Black Hills.
The mountain is sacred ground for as many as 17 American Indian tribes, and the ceremonial area is visited by many each summer. Year round the mountain is used for prayer and is believed to be the spot where the creator communicates with his people through vision and prayer. For thousands of years, American Indian tribes, including the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan have traveled to Bear Butte to perform annual prayer ceremonies. They, along with visitors from around the world, make annual pilgrimages to this sacred site for spiritual renewal and sustenance.
As we climb the mountain we see colorful pieces of cloth and small bundles or pouches hanging from the trees. These prayer cloths and tobacco ties represent prayers offered by individuals during their worship. For the native peoples, the Creator gave them the sanctity of Bear Butte and other gifts to use in their sacred ways – sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar, and water.
We learn that the colors used in prayer cloths and prayer ties vary with the different tribes, but are often similar to the colors associated with the four cardinal directions.
- Black is for the West, and is the color of the Thunder and Lightning People who clean the Earth.
- Red is for the North. The Buffalo come from the north and sacrifice themselves for the people so that the people may live.
- Yellow is for the East. Hope and a new day come from the east.
- White is for the South, which is the direction that we go when we leave this physical world and go on to the next world.
Despite its cultural and religious significance, this National Historic Landmark is threatened by proposed energy development. Last November, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment approved a plan to establish a 960-acre oil field adjacent to Bear Butte. Based on tribal opposition and recommendations made by the National Trust and the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, the board agreed that no wells would be located within the NHL boundary, and adopted other restrictions to reduce the project’s impact. However, in addition to the well proposal, a wind power installation, to be placed roughly five miles away from the mountain, is currently under consideration.
Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery,
teach me how to trust
my inner knowing,
the senses of my body,
the blessings of my spirit.
Teach me to trust these things
so that I may enter my Sacred Space
and love beyond my fear,
and thus Walk in Balance
with the passing of each glorious Sun.
According to the Native People, the Sacred Space is the space between exhalation and inhalation. To Walk in Balance is to have Heaven (spirituality) and Earth (physicality) in Harmony.