South Dakota Tourism
The Black Hills of South Dakota.

Sacred Black Hills: An Ideological Battle Ground

Simon Moya-Smith


National Sacred Places Prayer Days 2013 will conclude June 26. In the meantime, Native Americans continue to reflect on the spiritual significance of sundry sacred sites spanning Turtle Island. (Related story: “National Sacred Places Prayer Days Starts Tomorrow)

Charlotte Black Elk, the revered Oglala Lakota historian, is a noted champion of the embattled Black Hills in South Dakota, and although many are aware that the Black Hills is a sacred place to the Lakota people, there are those who don’t know exactly why.

“All of the universe holds a song,” she said. “[And] all of the songs of the universe [are] located in the Blacks Hills.”

Black Elk added that said song “is only complete in the Black Hills.”

But with continued industrial development in the Black Hills, the sacred location is increasingly under siege by corporations, she said.

“Our ceremonial site, with the star knowledge, with our cosmology, tells us when to be in the Black Hills, where to be and what ceremony to perform,” she said. “And I think right now the Black Hills are increasingly at risk because of exploitative energy interests.”

Black Elk said that it’s imperative the American populace learns that pollution occurs in the Black Hills even when a home is erected.

“People are living up there,” she said. “And I don’t think people realize that when you build a house somewhere you bring pollution, and so much of the Black Hills is being developed. We have to protect [this] place on earth as a place of prayer, as a place of ceremony, and as a place that needs to be left as it is.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the D.C.-based Morning Star Institute, organizes the annual National Sacred Places Prayer Days commemoration. Harjo said the U.S. government wrongfully seized the Black Hills from the Lakota people.

“In the case of the Black Hills, they were absolutely stolen,” she said.

Harjo added that the Black Hills is merely one location in the U.S. threatened by industry.

“We have sacred places throughout this country that keep the world in balance,” she said. “And some of these are threatened and are being exposed to desecration and damage as we speak, and that simply has to stop.”

Black Elk said the difference in perspective between the Lakota and the Christian with regard to Mother Earth is significant and worth noting.

“In our origin story, we are children of the earth and the earth is our mother—our first and real mother,” she said. “In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the earth is a place of banishment and you live by dominating the earth, and that’s a very different philosophical perspective. In our origin legend, women were created first.”

Centuries after the arrival of the first white settler, Black Elk said the Lakota people remain in ideological warfare with American hegemony.

“We have gone from a war of weapons in the 1800s to a war of bureaucracy and now we’re in a war of ideas and principles,” she said. “And the Black Hills are central to all of that battle.”

Black Elk encourages Native peoples to pray, and not just six days out of the year. Every day.

“We should pray everyday—whatever our religious persuasion is,” she said.



Mary Ellen Ryall's picture
Mary Ellen Ryall
Submitted by Mary Ellen Ryall on

I offer my heart and intentions to keep the Black Hills sacred for the Lakota. I have seen sacred sites out in South Dakota and knew it was a powerful place of prayer. Chief Arvol Lookinghorse has since determined than non Indians are not welcome there.I personally agree with this because many times the dominant society simply doesn't understand the silence of prayer in the wind, stars, sun and clouds. The Earth has sacred places that need to be protected. I was invited to come by a Lakota and Ojibwe friends.