Native Sun News: Tribes told of potential burials near Bear Butte

Ed. Note: The initial version of the story has been updated to include a response from the engineering firm and more information from the Meade County Commission. The county commission is still in the process of confirming the nature of the burial site.

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

A biker rides near Bear Butte, a place of worship and celebration of Native American ceremonies. Photo by Talli Nauman

Bear Butte defenders notify Tribal Historic Preservation Offices after road study suggests burial sites
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health and Environmental Editor

STURGIS – All the Tribal Historic Preservation Offices associated with the Bear Butte sacred protected area in Meade County have been notified about a study revealing the possibility of burial sites on the proposed route of a controversial bypass road near the peak, a spokesperson for Meade County Taxpayers for Responsible Government (MCTRG) said May 18.

“Our intent is to make sure the important tribal and state officials are aware of it, and let the professionals do their work,” MCTRG volunteer Jane Murphy told the Native Sun News.

During a May 14 Meade County Commission meeting, Highway Superintendent Ken McGirr responded to questions from Chair Alan Aker, referring to the possibility of several ceremonial grave sites found during an archeological study of the proposed Sturgis bypass route just a few miles from Bear Butte, Ft. Meade and the historic Custer Trail.

The study by Sturgis-based Brosz Engineering Inc. reportedly turned up cairns and rock circles. However, Murphy said, findings were preliminary and no mention was made at the meeting about whether they are tribal relics.

The Meade County Commission released a statement following the meeting announcing “areas of historical interest indicated within Ft. Meade Way Road Project.”

The commission has been in contact with the South Dakota State Historical Society regarding the preliminary findings, it said, adding, “Meade County will follow applicable statutes regarding this matter.”

MCTRG Chair Tim Udager said public participation might be needed “to ensure that appropriate legal and respectful measures are taken to protect these sites.”

Murphy said tribes she notified include Oglala, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Flandreau Santee, Northern Cheyenne and Ft. Peck Assiniboine and Sioux. She also notified the South Dakota State Historical Preservation Office, she said.

Multiple grave sites were found within the right-of-way proposed for the road, according to MCTRG. However, the commission noted, “At present, no human remains have been discovered and no construction has been initiated. The commission is very sensitive to the cultural and historical significance of the possibility of human burial sites within the scope of this project,” it added.

County officials planned to confer with the engineer during the week of May 24, to find out when a final study will be available. The issue is not scheduled for discussion the week’s public meetings calendar.

“I’m told the easiest thing to do is to reroute your road,” in the case of historical preservation requirements,” commission spokesman Jerry Derr told the Native Sun News.

On March 3, voters turned down the Meade County Commission’s proposal for a special tax district to facilitate construction of the bypass road connecting the Pleasant Valley exit of I-90 and the intersection of highways 34 and 79.

That intersection is near Bear Butte and some campgrounds, such as the Buffalo Chip, that cater to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who attend the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

By raising the issue at the commission meeting, Aker indicated an interest in pursuing the route despite citizen opposition, according to Prairie Hills Audubon Society Chapter President Nancy Hilding.

The Commission also has voted to approve Buffalo Chip as a new municipality and two lawsuits are in process to prevent that.

People need to “help assure maximum protection for the grave sites and of course help fight this road that will increase development in the area and threaten the integrity of Bear Butte,” Hilding said.

In addition to its role as a temple, Bear Butte is a South Dakota State Park, National Historical Landmark, National Natural Landmark, and Registered National Trail (Bear Butte Summit Trail).

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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