Jennifer Buddenborg's photo of Bear Butte from a distance.

11 Most Endangered Historic Places

Bear Butte

  • Location: Southwest Meade, SD

Bear Butte, the 4,426-foot mountain called Mato Paha by the Lakota in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is sacred ground for as many as 17 American Indian tribes. Believed to be the spot where the creator communicates with his people through vision and prayer, the mountain earned its nickname because of its resemblance to a bear sleeping on its side. 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 for spiritual renewal and sustenance to this sacred site, which is part of Bear Butte State Park. It was here, from the expansive summit of Bear Butte, that the Lakota Sioux held their Oyate Kiwsiyaya, the Great Reunion of the People, where Crazy Horse pledged to resist further “white” encroachment into the Black Hills in 1857.

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.

The National Trust recognizes the need for energy development. However, such projects need to include the appropriate siting of energy infrastructure that minimizes physical and visual impacts to significant cultural resources. Because the placement of any oil wells or other energy development near Bear Butte could negatively impact the sacred site and further degrade the cultural landscape, future development proposals should be required to undergo a review process that includes meaningful tribal input and full consideration of impacts to cultural resources. The most effective way to achieve this result would be through strengthened state and local protections.

Bear Butte was included on the Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list for 2011.

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