Ivan Star Comes Out: Group disturbs tranquility at Bear Butte

The following opinion was written by Ivan F. Star Comes Out. All content © Native Sun News.

Mato Paha, or Bear Butte, in South Dakota. Photo by JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD / Wikipedia

Bear Butte tranquility dishonored
By Ivan F. Star Comes Out

Mato Paha (Bear Butte) is a beautiful place. It has been a sacred site to the northern tribes for thousands of years. Even with the recent fire that destroyed much of its trees, a person can still go there and do some serious soul searching. It has been described as a place of unrivaled tranquility, a place where a person is able to pray in the near absence of worldly or exterior intrusions.

I have been going to Bear Butte since the early 1990s with a tiospaye from the Red Shirt community on the Pine Ridge. The reason this group goes there, as with most Lakota, is to “pray on the hill” in preparation for the wiwanyang wacipi in early August on the Red Shirt plateau. This particular late summer ceremony is the woihanble (dream) of the late Evelyn Poor Thunder.

Anyway, I have notable memories of those past times at Bear Butte. I remember expressly the respect, the closeness, and the spirit of sharing between the camps. There were times when one camp would invite others to coffee or sandwiches or they would share fire wood if someone came up short. People visited each other openly establishing new friends or renewing old ones.

Basically, people supported and helped each other to carry out their prayer vigils. Each camp required about 7 to 10 days and when one was done they would pack up and leave so others can complete their prayers. Usually, each camp had people up on the hill every night and day they were there. I don’t recall anybody just camped there doing nothing but waiting for another camp to move out.

The peacefulness, which cannot be found anywhere else, is so mesmerizing that I did not realize how much things changed this year. Upon my arrival, I became aware of the large “culture camp” occupying the southeast corner of the camping area again. I paid little attention since my focus was on my one reason for being there and was expecting the same camaraderie I had experienced in the past.

It was odd to hear some people talking, laughing, and swearing high up on the butte. I could hear rocks tumbling down and then an occasional drum with singing. I assumed it was the usual tourists exploring the butte or even some geologists or other professionals doing some sort of work up there. It was only after I came down that I became aware of how off-center things were.

I spent an extra day there after completing my prayers in support of those still on the hill and to enjoy another day of tranquility. Instead, I absorbed some disturbing information. I was so tense that I decided to leave so as not to disturb the others with my increasing negativity.

I realized that this change began subtly about four years ago. It has now escalated to the point of hostility this year. I have nothing but praise for the Wakinyan Tamaheca/Wawokiye (Poor Thunder/Helper) assistants as they stayed focused on their duties in helping people with their prayers and they themselves completed their prayers.

I must say, I never experienced this kind of behavior and activity in those prior years at Bear Butte. For instance, they sent a little child to tell the Poor Thunder/Helper camp that the next time that pet dog enters their camp they were going to kill it. Consequently, a heated altercation occurred between a non-Indian from the “Cultural Camp” and the pet owner’s father.

I learned that these people were controlling the parking lot by placing chairs or other objects in the space when someone left reserving it for members of their own group. At one point, the Poor Thunder/Helper assistants moved one of several “cultural camp” trailers so they could park a family member’s vehicle and haul food to the camp. The trailer was taking up space for two vehicles.

Immediately, the culture camp members accused the Poor Thunder/Helper camp of trying to steal their wood and stationed guards at the parking lot late into the night. I listened to camp-member discussions about how this culture camp had been kicked out of another Lakota reservation because they had pushed or assaulted a spiritual leader there.

Also, I read some very disturbing information via the internet regarding the leader of this “Spiritual Camp.” I am withholding the specifics of this information since I am not absolutely sure as to its authenticity, but it is unsettling. Poor Thunder/Helper camp members reported that this group made sarcastic remarks about women not wearing dresses and even harassed little children that were there.

I know it is a protocol for women to wear dresses in the presence of these wakan wicohan (sacred ceremonies). However, I’ve noticed that not everyone adheres to it. I wonder if this is one of those “new-age” cultural customs that arise from time to time. I also know that the Poor Thunder/Helper camp women honor this practice at the inipi and at their annual Sundance ceremony.

During the three days I was there at Mato Paha, this “cultural camp” was merely camped there as if waiting for us to move out. They were not going through the usual inipi or putting people on the hill. Their activities appeared to be anything but spiritual. Instead I felt a strong sense of animosity emanating from members of this “culture camp.”

As I was leaving, the wife and I had to walk through a group of the culture campers sitting in the shaded area near the bridge. I could see that some of them were glaring at us as we went by. Jokingly, in Lakota, I told the Mrs. to move faster lest we get beat up here. She chuckled and continued to amble on through the group.

Again, kudos to the Poor Thunder camp helpers who helped and guided young pledgers through this annual ceremony despite the obvious animosity directed at them. They succeeded in shielding them from this disturbing atmosphere. The Poor Thunder/Helper camp’s spiritual leader, Marvin Helper, continually reminded everyone that Bear Butte is a place of prayer and to stay calm.

Mr. Helper spoke of a Bear Butte Park Service meeting scheduled to occur later this year. He was attempting to learn of the exact date for the meeting when I left. His intent is to request that this group be moved to another time. Essentially, he does not want this new-age “culture camp” there when his group returns next year.

Personally, I see this “cultural camp” as a young entrepreneur’s money-making venture. Reminds me of the biblical affair in which Jesus kicked vendors and money exchangers out of a temple because they were preventing others from worshipping. It was certainly difficult this year for the Poor Thunder/Helper camp to worship in tranquility as they had for 2.5 decades.

(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448; mato_nasula2@outlook.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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