I’m excited to share with you about my experience at the recent Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Each year, the world’s largest motorcycle rally attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Sturgis, S.D. — which can lead to a whole host of issues. For more than a week each August, the population of this small town swells, and the increase in motorcycle traffic is noticeable across the entire state. Some local residents have expressed frustration about the road congestion and overcrowding, but that’s just the beginning.
From a Lakota perspective, the rally has always been an even bigger problem. Sturgis is another of many predominantly white towns in South Dakota where racism and other forms of violent colonialism hold firm roots. Over time, the vilification of our presence as Native people became integral to the rhetoric created to affirm settler identity; in other words, the rally is just another (very loud) expression of dominance over our homelands, of white supremacy.
Governance in South Dakota, of course, wants to ignore all that. In the warm months of summertime, tourism becomes particularly relevant to South Dakota’s economy. The state and private enterprises boast extensively to travelers of the towns of the old west and the gold rush, while exploiting Native sacred sites as revenue-driving attractions, all without educating or really even acknowledging the genocidal history of how these places came to be.
One of these sacred sites is called Mathó Pahá (Bear Butte in English) and happens to be 8.5 miles outside of Sturgis. The site is sandwiched, with about five miles on each side, between two of the largest, loudest bars and concert venues the area has to offer: the Full Throttle Saloon and the Buffalo Chip. Lakota people have been coming to Mathó Pahá for millennia to pray and hold ceremony, specifically Hanbleceya (to cry for a dream).
Bear Butte holds immense cultural and spiritual significance for not only the Lakota, but also for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The noise generated by motorcycles and the festivities during the rally can disrupt the peace and quiet of the town and surrounding areas, leading to complaints from locals who would prefer a less chaotic atmosphere. Among them are many Native people who are actively participating in ceremony as the rally rages on each summer.
From a very young age, I’d been made aware of Mathó Pahá — what it is and what it means. In my childhood, my father and our family participated in an awareness run to raise consciousness during the rally about this site and our perspectives. But what I knew of the rally when I was younger was limited to dirty looks from tipsy white pedestrians and tourists in headdresses — and an increase of deaths on the highway.
That’s already an intense picture. As I got older, I had a disturbing realization: this rally started in 1938, before Native peoples in the United States were legally allowed to practice our religion. Founded in 1878, the settlement was named after Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, a prominent military figure who served as commander of the 7th Cavalry in the U.S. Indian Wars. One of his sons was killed at the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn).
The town that bears his name experienced growth driven by the illegal Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s, which broke the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and attracted thousands of prospectors and miners seeking their fortunes. All this laid the groundwork for future exploitation and debauchery: the conservative political landscape of South Dakota, the invasive nature of resource extraction and the tourism industry here, and the rally itself.
During 2021, the Sturgis Rally faced particular controversy due to concerns about COVID-19 transmission. Some health officials and residents were worried that the rally would be a super-spreader event, and that proved to be true. Earlier in the pandemic, then-president Donald Trump’s rally at Mount Rushmore for the Fourth of July, 2020 prompted similar concerns. This is a pattern of blatant disregard for our safety as Native people by modern-day colonists. When Trump visited our state again on Sept. 8. 2023, Lakota Law joined South Dakota Native nations in protest.
Despite ongoing concerns about COVID, as a vaccinated, healthy individual, I decided to go observe a day of the rally this year with my cousin. Our intention was to get an understanding of what sort of education and or awareness surrounding Native history or culture or life in modernity the average rally goer might be privy to, then plan for further action next year. The first man I interviewed, a local, gray-haired man, looked to be in his late ‘50s. Our interchange, I think, says it all.
I asked him the question, “What did you learn about Native Americans in school?”
“Nothing,” he curtly responded.
Between that answer and the toxic atmosphere of the event swirling all around us, we had all the information we needed. My cousin and I spent the rest of the night at the rally playing with rubber band guns and antagonizing rally-goers with Tanya Tagaq’s “Colonizer” blaring through a car speaker. Next year, having the lay of the land, we’ll make a bigger impression. My fake Winchester and I will not return to the rally as attendees, but rather in the form of some sort of guerrilla performance art.
To be clear, it’s hard to simply exist as a Native woman anywhere, but Sturgis during the motorcycle rally has got to be one of the more difficult and dangerous places I can think of. Ignorant, predominantly white people, gathering on motorized bikes in South Dakota — where the violent extremists of the far right today find a warm embrace in people like Governor Kristi Noem — has created an atmosphere of such chaos that in a sense it really does still feel like the Wild West. Indians don’t feel safe, there’s no accountability, and drunks with real guns roam free. I guess that’s the point, but it’s time to stop the hate.