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Sacred site

Bear Butte placed on national list of 11 most endangered historic places

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Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 10:11 am

STURGIS — The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Bear Butte to its 2011 list of American's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places Wednesday.

“The designation has been a powerful tool for raising awareness and rallying resources to save endangered sites from every region of the country,” said Jenny Buddenborg, program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who led the announcement ceremony held at the Bear Butte Education Center.

A local grassroots group, formed to protect and preserve their sacred site, deserves credit for attaining their ultimate goal of landing on the list. They first nominated Bear Butte for the endangered sites list in 2007 and kept persevering until their voices were heard.

“I'm ecstatic!,” said Jace DeCory, founding member of the Association for Mato Paha Preservation (AMPP), a citizen action group formed to educate the public about Mato Paha (Bear Butte). “It gives the mountain a voice.”

DeCory, a Lakota of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University, was a featured speaker at the announcement ceremony.

“At least people nationally are concerned with the preservation of this most holy site,” DeCory said. “I'll bet our ancestors in the spirit world are happy that folks are recognizing this as a special place. This mountain keeps people living. People can pray for guidance and help with life here. They can leave their troubles here and start anew. A lot of people come here to start over.”

Buddenborg explained that the endangered list of 11 is based on three criteria: the significance of the site, the urgency of the threat to the site and potential solutions.

“The significance of the site has been established in light of the fact that Bear Butte is a National Historic Landmark, potential energy development is the threat, with plans for a 960 acre oil field adjacent to the site, and potential solutions have been developed. Bear Butte is a highly sacred site to at least 17 Native American tribes and any type of energy development that would make a negative impact on that qualifies. We are concerned that this will set a precedent for more energy development. We want to keep Bear Butte sacred.”

Buddenborg said that now that the site has been designated, work on potential solutions begins.

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation actively works with the site once it's been designated,” she said. “We'll work with local partners, South Dakota State Parks, for example, to strengthen state preservation laws. We'll work to strengthen county ordinances and potential land acquisitions around the site, placing easements. These are all solutions that we think could work.”

Conrad Fisher, tribal historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, also spoke at the announcement ceremony.

“This place has spiritual significance that far outweighs any economic benefit the land might hold,” Fisher said. “This place is imbued with cultural meaning. It gives us our identity. We are inherently tied to this special place. This is our history, the very fabric of who we are as tribes.”

Local ranchers Dennis and Jessie Levin who ranch 35 miles east of Bear Butte and “have the honor of seeing this mountain while we're working in the hay fields, in the wheat fields, as we're moving cattle,” wrote letters of support to help the AMPP group secure the endangered designation.

“I cried after she told me,” Jessie said, describing her reaction to the news of AMPP's success. “After I screamed, that is. We knew it was coming. Jace told us the spirit of this mountain is so powerful it's going to take care of itself. And it has.”

Kile was equally enthused about the group's preservation success so far.

“We are a small group of northern Black Hills grandmothers and mothers who decided in 2006 that we are going to live out loud with regard to the significance of Mato Paha,” Kile said. “It means a lot, a great deal, as a grandmother first generation raised off the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to have this site protected. I feel reassured that my grandchildren will hear from their community the indigenous significance of this place.”

America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places has identified more than 200 threatened one-of-a-kind historic treasures since 1988.

Whether these sites are urban districts or rural landscapes, Native American landmarks or 20th-century sports arenas, entire communities or single buildings, the list spotlights historic places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.

At times, the attention garnered has gained public support to quickly rescue a treasured landmark; while in other instances, it has been the impetus of a long battle to save an important piece of our history.

The list has been so successful in galvanizing preservation efforts across the country and rallying resources to save endangered places that, in just two decades, only seven sites have been lost.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation ( is a non-profit membership organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. and bringing people together to protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them.

“Energy development cannot be halted, but it can be sensitively sited,” Buddenborg said.

Bear Butte is comprised of approximately 1,870 acres which run along the east and west side of Highway 79, just outside of Sturgis. It has an elevation of 4,426 feet above sea level.

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