Pilgrimage to Bear Butte.

We start walking in a single file line. The drum and pipe lead. My classmates and I, though hyper in the vans, settle into a reverence quickly. It’s November, but the sun is blinding and feels so close, as if I might be able to touch it when I reach the top of the butte. My stride starts strong. I’m giddy. I am walking up a sacred path that holds an unfathomable depth of history, how could I not be giddy? A soft wind sporadically whistles. The sky’s blue deepens and the plains spread further as I climb. The dizziness doesn’t take too long to set in—twenty minutes, half hour tops—and with it the fading of my giddiness and strength. I’ve fallen back from the line and my mouth tastes hot while shivers slink down my ribs. If I look up from the trail for more than a glance, South Dakota spins. My mind is empty. Beyond the physical sensations of my dizziness—the tingling on my skin, the blurring of my sight—I am numb.

I am climbing Bear Butte, also known as Bear Mountain or Mathó Pahá to the Lakota, and when I finally reach the top and the dizziness stops, I’m flooded with more emotion I thought capable of ever containing: a cold sorrow seemingly arisen from nothing. Despite my fear of crying in public, I weep for the beginning of the pipe ceremony. Later in reflection, I consider the entire event—walk and spins and tears—as indubitably spiritual and sacred. And while perhaps the hike up Bear Butte isn’t at first thought as ritualistic, when properly considered it is otherwise apparent, for mountain has been considered sacred from time immemorial—a place of pilgrimage and vision quests for the indigenous people of the surrounding region. As Geography professor Kari Forbes-Boyte writes in his article Respecting Sacred Perceptions, “The Lakotas describe Bear Butte as their most sacred altar, where people go to communicate with the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka” (Forbes-Boyte 104). Considering that the trail has been undertaken for religious purposes by the Sioux and Cheyenne since their earliest recorded histories, it seems fair to consider a journey up Bear Butte as ritual in itself—fair even, to stretch the argument further, to compare Bear Butte to a temple.

In “The Bare Facts of Ritual” from Imagining Religion, J. Z. Smith compares a temple to a focusing lens that makes or reveals significance. He explains, “When one enters a temple, one enters a marked-off space in which… nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance” (Smith 54). By definition then, Bear Butte—a sacred location with a great history of revelation and ritual—is a temple that potentially transformed what could have been an ordinary physically unpleasant hike into a deeply spiritual experience. Though I recognize self-critique is a great challenge, it is my hope to step back far enough and better understand what happened to me at Bear Butte using Smith’s theoretical model.

Smith argues that, within a sacred context, every “accident” has the potential to become significant based on interpretation, and since everything has potential for significance, nothing is inherently sacred beyond a human construct. Specifically in regards to my trek, using Smith’s framework, one can deduct that my experience was as powerful as it was because of Bear Butte’s collective sacred nature, which I was aware of from the start. While there were various components of the day that could have played into my reaction on the trail—pre-existing health conditions, dehydration, sleep deprivation, poor eating—my explanation of the dizziness and eventual crying was to dub the afternoon as a spiritual event. It was only after returning to my classroom in Colorado that I stopped and asked myself: Why? Why did I assume that I experienced something sacred? Considering the hike within Smith’s framework offers one form of an answer: that the focused lens of Bear Butte transformed what might have otherwise been considered an unsteady hike into something sacred.

One of Smith’s sharpest points in his essay is the argument that the lens of a temple makes the ordinary (i.e., a hike) sacred and an accident (i.e., my borderline-fainting condition and sudden swell of emotion) either a miracle or blasphemy (54). From Smith’s view, it is the duty of the participants to choose what the accident becomes, what is valuable and what is profane, as “ritual is an exercise in the strategy of choice” (56). Arguably though, such a clear-cut claim is where Smith falters, for does anyone ever make the conscious choice to feel what they feel and experience what they experience? Though Smith’s theory generally makes sense when I remain in my “armchair,” it doesn’t explain the oddly innate feeling I had that something did happen—I was opened up, repressions surfaced, and the hike acted as the first crucial step in a sure to be long healing process.

So, to be clear, I disagree with the simplicity of Smith’s idea of control and choice within ritual. Perhaps I’m missing an aspect of his theory, but I find he discounts the experiential aspect of religion and focuses too deeply on the attempt to find an explanation via his library, thus not giving true human experience enough credit. While approaching ritual in an academic context allows one to step outside the limitations of his own experience, a purely academic attempt is also short-sighted by the devaluing human emotion and intuition—denying the bizarre and unexpected nature of religion that makes it so beautiful. While I believe the spiritual experience of my hike was framed by Bear Butte’s ritualistic lens, my body and mind were so lost that I can’t see how I would have chosen to make the accident of my poor condition into something sacred. In all honesty, if the choice had been offered, I would’ve probably dubbed the experience as a blasphemous failure—not the transformative event I innately considered it to be mere hours later. It seems obvious that neither an academic approach nor a reliance on personal experience can suffice alone to analyze ritual, and so I propose that the two must be woven together for the strongest understanding of the sacred.

An interesting thing happened during my climb up Bear Butte. I was nearing the top. The trail had become merely rocks—one stumble and I’d tumble to my demise. At this point my dizziness was so strong it muted all thought. My only focus was on each step: my commitment to reaching the top. But then as I rounded the bend, something happened. I heard words—a child singing. I recognized the voice instantly. It was my own.  “The pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked…” Raised as a Mormon until a family-wide religious fissure at the age of fourteen, the primary song describing my ancestors’ trek across the plains to Salt Lake City was embedded into my childhood. Still, I hadn’t heard or thought of the song in nearly a decade. And yet there I was, mind spinning as I hiked Bear Butte in South Dakota for an indigenous religious studies course, and I was hearing my childhood voice sing the Mormon song in my head. I didn’t think anything of the mantra at the time. I simply continued to climb, the chorus feeding every step, my inner child encouraging me to the peak. The pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked. I’m not sure if I would’ve made it to the top of the butte without the song.

I haven’t considered myself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in over eight years and I have no intention to ever return to its teachings, but I can’t help but wonder if being in a place as sacred as Bear Butte, with its heavy ritualistic histories and claimed power, and having as great as a reaction as I did, offered me the chance to recognize my past spiritual history, thus allowing my inner Mormon child to sing me up to safety. I suppose Smith would argue that I chose to make the (accidental) memory into something miraculous, but then, I think maybe I’d agree. Regardless though of the how and the why and whatever framework one uses to analyze my trek up Bear Butte, it was a profoundly transformative experience. Does it really matter if the ritual was made sacred through the context of the butte’s ritualistic condition? Sacredness relies on human interpretation; so when it comes down to it, perhaps we just ought to listen to how humans interpret what they’ve experienced.

Heather Ezell, November 2012

Works Cited

Forbes-Boyte, Kari. “Respecting Sacred Perceptions: The Lakotas, Bear Butte, and Land-Management Strategies.” The Public Historian 18.4 (1996): 99-117. Print.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “The Bare Facts of Ritual.” Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Text.

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