When South Dakotans say the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally doubles the population of the state, it’s only a slight exaggeration. More than 500,000 bikers invade the Black Hills each August; 776,000 people live in the state. Sturgis (pop. 6,400) has hosted the annual rally since 1938, when about 200 bikers turned out to watch nine participants do stunts. The event, a raucous celebration of the freewheeling, hard-drinking motorcycle culture, has grown steadily, with annual attendance in the hundreds of thousands.
But as the influx revs up this week, so does the tension that has been mounting for several years between the party-hearty biker culture and Native Americans trying to preserve their religious traditions. It came to a boil this year when Arizona entrepreneur Jay Allen started building what he proudly calls the world’s biggest biker bar 2 miles from Bear Butte, one of the most sacred sites of the Plains tribes. “Imagine sitting in a church or sitting in a synagogue, trying to have a . . . prayer service, and you have half a million bikes running by every minute of the day and night for three weeks,” said Debra White Plume, a Lakota Sioux from the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “That’s what the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally does to this environment.”