June 16, 2015

Sacred Native American Sites: Bear Butte and Wind Cave

The Black Hills of South Dakota offer inspiring landscapes with a rugged vitality steeped in history and tradition. In the upcoming Summer 2015 issue of Preservation, writer Reed Karaim documents his journey through the sacred lands that have been home to Native American tribes for generations.

Along the way he visits two of the region’s most enchanting natural wonders—Bear Butte (listed on America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2011) and Wind Cave—and speaks with Jace DeCory, member of the Lakota-Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.

Bear Butte, a large, flat mountain in South Dakota, surrounded by fields.

photo by: Don Barret/Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bear Butte State Park, which the Lakota refer to as Mato Paha and the Cheyenne call Noahvose, was established as a state park in 1961.

Both Bear Butte and Wind Cave are integral to the Lakota people, and hold significance for a number of other tribes as well. Located along the western edge of the state, the lush Black Hills, or He Sapa, cover an area of approximately 5,000 square miles. Long before George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 expedition unearthed gold in French Creek, the area’s natural wonders inspired reverence and spiritual awakening in Native American tribes.

Wind Cave National Park—located ten miles north of Hot Springs—was the first ever cave designated a national park anywhere in the world. Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave is home to the vast majority of the earth’s discovered boxwork, rare calcite formations that resemble honeycombs. Guided tours of the cave are available year-round at a first-come, first-served basis.

To many of the Lakota people, Wind Cave is the sacred site in their oral creation story; this is where the Pte Oyate —Buffalo Nation/People—emerged from inside Mother Earth and became Ikce Wicasa—Common People.

“In a way, the cave is a metaphor. It could be anywhere that represents the idea of emergence into the surface world,” says DeCory. "But many Lakota believe that site is Wind Cave."

Buffalo are revered by many of the region’s tribes, especially the Lakota. DeCory speaks of the “sacred trust” between the creatures and humans due to their shared emergence from Wind Cave. Buffalo appear ubiquitously in the Lakota stories of creation and renewal, with their spiritual essence commonly called upon in significant ceremonies and traditions. Once on the precipice of extinction, the region's buffalo population has since rebounded and can be seen roaming the Black Hills.

Boxwork inside the Wind Cave, or stalactites in a box formation.

photo by: Kevin Baird/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Wind Cave, along with Bear Butte, are integral to the Lakota people, and hold significance for a number of other tribes as well.

About two hours (by car) north of Wind Cave is Bear Butte State Park, which the Lakota refer to as Mato Paha and the Cheyenne call Noahvose. Established as a state park in 1961, its namesake igneous rock formation rises over 1,200 feet above the surrounding landscape. The Lakota believe the peak is a sacred bear that serves as a sentinel over the plains.

“Approaching this icon, one is filled with overwhelming joy, anticipation, and hope that prayers will be heard, knowing that one will leave a better person,” says DeCory. “For thousands of years travelers came to fast, pray, seek visions, find direction, and receive sacred laws at this volcanic laccolith, where ceremonies are validated, our spiritual beliefs are rooted, and holy pilgrimages are made.”

As with Wind Cave, the Lakota offer prayers in the form of tobacco wrapped in colorful cloth tied to a tree.

“Because traditional cultural rites provide human beings with healing connectedness to the land, our stewardship of open spaces and sacred sites is a duty to our Creator and to future generations.” says DeCory. “Always be respectful of these sites. Appreciate them. Be in awe.”

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