Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Sodom and Gomorrah

In the 1980's, two small western South Dakota towns were faced with tough economic choices. Business leaders in the fading tourist town of Deadwood (population 1,300) hoped to revitalize their Main Street by legalizing low-stakes casino gambling, and in 1988 managed to get the necessary constitutional amendment proposal on the statewide ballot. It's hard to remember now with the explosion of "gaming" (a more digestible term than "degenerate gambling") throughout the country, but back in 1988 only Nevada and Atlantic City had casinos.

The vote went in favor of the amendment, and Deadwood's gaming establishments opened Nov. 1, 1989. I had moved out of the Black Hills five years earlier, but I happened to be back in the area on a work assignment. A group of us headed up to Deadwood that first night, and I remember the temporary tables set up in the Franklin Hotel basement and defunct hardware stores along Main Street. I lost my customary quarter in a slot machine, and watched the others lose at blackjack for the rest of the evening.

Since then permanent facilities have been built, and the town gained free publicity when the foul-mouthed TV series "Deadwood" began airing on HBO. So today Deadwood is a community thriving on gambling and its colorful history of murder, mayhem and prostitution.

Fourteen miles east of Deadwood is the second town that faced a choice: Sturgis (population 6,400), which saw violence flare in 1982 during the annual motorcycle rally. A town vote was held to decide whether to continue with the event. I was with the Sturgis newspaper from 1979-84, and before the vote I opined in my weekly column that the event should continue because it was what made Sturgis unique. The referendum narrowly went in favor of continuing the rally.

But to prevent another outbreak of violence the city decided to prohibit camping in the city park, which had been the location of the violence. Private biker campgrounds sprung up in dusty pastures outside of city limits. Since then these temporary campgrounds have evolved into the scenes of week-long parties with big-name entertainment. (I guess Sammy Hagar and Alice Cooper are big names.) In my day the motorcycle rally crowds were estimated by the Highway Patrol at 50,000, which in my opinion was overstated by a factor of five (i.e. 10,000). Now the estimate for the Sturgis Rally (which starts next week) is 500,000 bikers; I left Sturgis more than 20 years ago so I don't know if the 5x fudge factor still applies.

This summer, a guy from Arizona developed 600 acres six miles northeast of town into a camping facility called "Sturgis County Line" that will include a huge biker bar and an amphitheater that will seat 30,000 concert goers. (By "seat," I'm sure they mean seated on the ground. It's a pasture 51 weeks out of the year.) You can tell he's from out of town because there is no Sturgis County; it's Meade County.

Native Americans are upset because the campground is within sight of Bear Butte, a solitary mountain just outside the rest of the Black Hills. They say Bear Butte is a sacred site, and the partying bikers will disturb their religious observances. USA Today reports:

"In the past, all the partying was done near town, but now they're going to surround our sacred mountain and desecrate it, drink on it, and leave their trash when they go back to where they came from," says Vic Camp, 31, a Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

I don't know if religious observances at Bear Butte date back to prehistory as some claim, but they do date back at least to my reporting days. Most of the mountain is a state park. When these observances were revived (or initiated) in the early '80's, the local townsfolk didn't quite understand what was going on, but the Native Americans were left alone to conduct their activities and other visitors were advised not to disturb them.

This year the Meade County Commissioners voted to issue a liquor license to the new campground. There is no zoning in that area, so liquor licenses are one of the few forms of control that the county has over what is done on private land. The Native Americans (and the disturbingly-earnest white people who are their allies) protested issuance of the license, to no avail.

I attended more than my share of Meade County Commissioner meetings, so I claim some understanding of the thought process that went into the decision. Back in my day, most of the commissioners were old ranchers. Although the members changed once in a while, there were always four Republicans and one Democrat. One day a young man with a ponytail walked by the meeting room in the courthouse, presumably on his way to apply for welfare benefits. One of the commissioners commented on the long hair, "I would like to take my pocket knife and cut that thing off." But surely the lone Democrat objected to such insensitivity. No, he was the one who made the comment! These guys were conservatives no matter their party affiliation.

Most of the ranchers I ever met believe they have the right to use their property as they see fit. The commissioners I knew were not proponents of the Rally; to them it was an annual annoyance that meant extra expense for the Sheriff's Department. But to them, zoning was more objectionable than a few drunken bikers, and the current-day commissioners apparently agree. They didn't see any legitimate reason to deny the landowner the right to use his land in the proposed manner, so the liquor license was approved.

The Native Americans have spent (according to the AP) $1.3 million in the last 20 years to buy 2.6 square miles of land around Bear Butte. Under the system of private ownership that the majority of Meade County residents apparently believe in, that's the way for the Native Americans to solve the problem. But the chance to make money by building giant biker bars is bringing in opportunists and driving up land prices. If liberal celebrities are looking for a cause, maybe they should buy up land near Bear Butte and donate it to the Native Americans.

In the '80's and since then, choices have been made in the northern Black Hills. In Deadwood and Sturgis, the course was steered toward gambling, debauchery and biker bars, and a certain level of prosperity has resulted. I doubt my little opinion column in the Sturgis newspaper back in '82 swung any votes, but sometimes I wonder. If a few people had voted differently, next week Sturgis would be a sleepy little town at the turnoff to Deadwood instead of the scene of the wildest party on the face of the Earth. These days, peace and quiet are more appealing to me than drunken partying, so I might write that column differently if I had to do it over.


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