Bear Butte Lodge is an educational, spiritual and cultural center that is located at the base of Bear Butte in South Dakota. Run by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, it is open to everyone but has a primary mission to host tribal events, groups and individuals.
When my husband and I visited, we were met by caretaker Corey Hairy Shirt, a Lakota man who generously welcomed us one warm August day.
“Bear Butte has been a holy site for thousands of years,” Corey told us. “Many tribes come here to pray and do ceremonies. Whites are welcome to come too, but we hope they will be respectful when they visit. Christians don’t want someone coming into the middle of a church service playing a radio, but sometimes the equivalent of that happens on Bear Butte. That’s why we try to teach non-Indians about what this holy mountain means to us. We want them to understand how we do things here.”
In thinking about our visit, I realize that Corey taught us about Bear Butte in a way entirely in keeping with Indian tradition: he told us stories. He spoke first of his own life, of how he was born on the nearby Rosebud Reservation and struggled for years with alcoholism before entering recovery at the age of 30. He told of moving back to the reservation to make amends to those he had hurt and of reconnecting with his family, community and Lakota traditions.
A key part of Corey’s spiritual path has been the Sun Dance. For nearly 30 years he has been participating in this ritual, first as a dancer and now as a ceremonial leader. While different tribes have their own variations of this religious ceremony, all forms of it require great physical endurance and courage.
Corey explained that the dance is done not for oneself, but as a sacrifice and prayer for one’s family and loved ones. ”That first year, my mother had suffered a stroke and I decided to dance for her healing,” he said. “People told me it would be the hardest thing I’d ever done. You dance for four days with nothing to eat or drink, with your chest skin pierced and tied to a central pole. That first year, there was a time when I didn’t think I could complete it, but I did.”
Corey’s mother lived another 17 years, and Corey continued dancing. Today he teaches others who wish to take up the Sun Dance tradition, while continuing to learn about its meanings himself.
As caretaker of the Bear Butte Lodge, Corey meets a wide variety of people. Some are deeply steeped in the mountain’s history and traditions; some come unaware of what it represents.
“This mountain has a life of its own, and it’s different every day,” he told us. “But there’s something here that draws people, even those who don’t know much about it. They are often surprised by their strong reaction to it and the emotions it stirs up in them. I tell them, ‘Remember where you’re at–this is one of the best places in the world to come and pray.”
While Corey believes it is important for non-Indians to have an understanding of what goes on at Bear Butte and other holy sites, he (like many Indians) is wary of those who try to appropriate native traditions for their own, particularly those who charge money for ceremonies.
In characteristic fashion, he told us a story that conveyed this point in a most vivid way. Several years ago he met a young man, a non-Indian, who was taking part in a Sun Dance as part of a paid workshop taught by someone based in California.
When he asked the young man how long he had prepared for the ceremony, he said three months. When he asked him where he had gotten his pipe and other ceremonial objects, he said he had purchased them. When he asked who he was dancing for, the young man said for himself, that he was struggling in his job and thought it might help.
And then Corey gently told him of his own path to the sacred circle, how the Sun Dance requires a year of preparation, how everything that is used in it must be made by or given to the dancer, and how the dance is done as a sacrifice for loved ones, not for oneself. He said that the requirements of the Sun Dance do not end once the ceremony is completed, for once you take up the sacred pipe, you can never put it down and from then on you have a responsibility to pray for your people.
“The next morning, the young man came to me with all of his things packed and said he was going home,” Corey said. “He told me that my story had made him realize that this was not his path, and that he was grateful to me for teaching that to him.”
I came away from our meeting with Corey Hairy Shirt with a deep respect both for him and for all those who are carrying on Indian traditions at Bear Butte and on the neighboring reservations. They have the difficult task of maintaining a balance between guarding what is holy and being welcoming to all people of good will.
As we drove away from the mountain that day and I saw its outline silhouetted against the sky, I remembered Corey’s story of how Bear Butte came to be. He said that many years ago, a terrible monster stalked the land. A bear came to protect the people and there was a fierce battle between the two of them. The bear finally won and threw the monster south, where it landed in the Badlands (there you can still see the thorny ridges of its back sticking up from the ground). The bear, wounded and bleeding after the fight, laid down and died on this spot, his body forming what is now the holy mountain.
“Here the bear remains, still protecting its people,” Corey told us. And after 30 years of visiting Bear Butte, I think this story is true, in all the ways that matter.
Bear Butte Lodge is located at the base of Bear Butte near Sturgis, South Dakota, and welcomes groups and individual visitors by reservation. The lodge accommodates 22 guests and there is also camping on the surrounding 40 acres. Guests are responsible for their own cooking and cleaning.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.