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Mato Paha
Bear Butte

Bear Butte

Bear Butte is a geological feature located in western South Dakota that was established as a State Park in 1961. An important landmark and religious site for the Plains Indians tribes long before Europeans reached South Dakota, Bear Butte is called Mato Paha - Bear Mountain - by the Lakota (Sioux).

The mountain is sacred to many indigenous people, who make pilgrimages to leave prayer cloths and bundles tied to the branches of the trees along the mountain’s flanks. Other offerings are often left at the top of the mountain. The site is associated with various religious ceremonies throughout the year. The mountain is a place of prayer, meditation, and peace.

Human artifacts have been found on or near Bear Butte that date back 10,000 years, indicating a long and continuous interest in the mountain. The Cheyenne and Lakota people have maintained a spiritual interest in Bear Butte from their earliest recorded history.

Notable visitors like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull made pilgrimages to the site. In 1857, a council of many Indian nations at Bear Butte gathered to discuss the growing presence of white settlers in the Black Hills.

Violating a treaty of 1868, George Armstrong Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills region in 1874, and according to custom he camped near Bear Butte. Custer verified the rumors of gold in the Black Hills, and Bear Butte then served as an easily identifiable landmark for the rush of invading prospectors and settlers into the region. Indian reaction to the illegal movements of whites into the area was intense and hostile. Ultimately the government denied its treaty obligations regarding the Black Hills - and instead embarked on a program to confine all northern Plains tribes to reservations.

Ezra Bovee homesteaded on the southern slopes of the mountain, and by the time of War World II, he and his family were the legal owners of the site. In the spring of 1945, the Northern Cheyenne received permission from Bovee to hold a ceremony at Bear Butte to pray for the end of World War II. The Cheyenne found that the Bovee family welcomed their interest in the mountain, and over the years the Bovees continued to encourage native religious ceremonies.

By the mid 1950s, Ezra Bovee was attempting to stir up interest in making Bear Butte a national park. After his death, his family continued the effort. When federal interest in the project waned, the state government in Pierre took action. Consequently, Bear Butte became a state park in 1961 and was registered as a National Historical Landmark in 1965.

Frank Fools Crow, the Lakota ceremonial chief (d. 1989), made pilgrimages to Bear Butte throughout his lifetime. Fools Crow taught that the earth was for everyone and urged racial harmony not just between whites and Indians, but among all the peoples of the world. A bust and plaque in front of the education center at Bear Butte State Park honor Fools Crow’s efforts.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2006;
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks


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