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The Black Hills Unity Concert: Standing Up for Our Sacred Sites

On Aug. 28 to Aug. 30, indigenous community leaders, renowned musicians representing both the Native and mainstream music industries, as well as thousands of concerned citizens from all walks of life will gather in the Black Hills for a weekend of ceremony, workshops, empowerment and unity around one often misunderstood matter—the fact that the Black Hills are sacred.

Originally started in 2014, the Black Hills Unity Concert has already made its mark on social and environmental issues affecting the many Indigenous Peoples of this hemisphere. It is more than a concert. It is a movement that in its inaugural year, attracted a crowd of more than 2,000 and showcased tremendous potential to continue to expand its message to the masses: the Black Hills are sacred and must be protected by the original stewards that find the Hills the “heart of everything that is.”

Held just outside Rapid City in Piedmont, South Dakota, the Black Hills Unity Concert is monumental and aims to develop a greater understanding among all peoples on why the Black Hills are sacred to many Indigenous Peoples and why that acknowledgement needs to include the entire human family.

This year’s concert will have almost all Native American performers along with leaders of the climate movement attending and presenting workshops, members from the Rosenberg Fund for Children as well as Black Lives Matter poets and activists, all joining to show solidarity with the Unity cause.  

Bethany Yarrow, one of the Unity Concert's original organizers, along with her father Peter Yarrow, legendary activist and musician of Peter, Paul and Mary, continue to be strong supporters of the Unity Movement.

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"The Unity Concert is becoming a gathering place for the intersection of various movements that are addressing society’s woes and failures, especially in the area of restorative justice and with a focus on the return of the Black Hills," says Peter Yarrow, "and, secondarily, on the preservation of sacred places for all indigenous peoples, everywhere."

An extraordinary addition to the 2015 event, is the presence of the Kogi and Arhuaco of the Santa Marta, Magdalena region of Colombia highlighted by Bethany Yarrow in a 2014 article for EcoWatch.

The Kogi are respectfully known as "elder brother" for their role in caring for the Earth and especially the Sierra Nevada mountains they call home, which they also call the "Heart of the World." The parallel is striking as the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, are referred to by the Pte Oyate (Great Sioux Nation) as the "Heart of Everything that Is." The Mamos, or tribal priests, represent indigenous people in South America never conquered by Spanish colonizers. They have been carrying a timely call, alerting all of us "younger brothers" to the importance of protecting these holy places, which hold sacred teachings which must continue to be passed down for generations to come.

A dancer performs at a previous Black Hills Unity Concert. Photo credit: David Braun

This year's lead organizer, Lyla June Johnston, a fierce young poet and activist who is of Diné, Cheyenne and European descent, is heading this call. Having graduated from Stanford in 2012, she is already a co-founder of The Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, which works to heal inter-generational trauma and ethnic division in the northern New Mexico, and the 2015 Original Caretakers Fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics under the Direction of Karenna Gore. Her personal mission in life is to grow closer to Creator by learning how to love deeper. This intent listening, along with her gift of oration, enable her to beautifully amplify the voices of those most needing to be heard.

“Our elders advised us to remind people, through example, what the Black Hills were for. In ancestral times no one lived there, they were only visited in times of prayer. They were a place to set aside our differences and pray for all our relations,” says Johnston. “The event is an opportunity rarely offered to much of Indian country’s passionate talent and leadership. The ability to learn from each other in way that is inviting to people from all walks of life critical in these times, and I am honored to be a small part of it.”

In addition to the music, the Black Hills Unity Concert will host community leaders from 12 Lakota, Dakota and Nakota reservations to present their solutions to their respective communities’ most pressing social and environmental challenges.

“Reconciling divided cultures and finding a solution to the Black Hills issue lies at the heart of the concert, yes, but it is also much more than that," says Johnston. "It is a place for people to put their minds together and pray for solutions to the social, environmental and indigenous issues that we face today.”

The crowd at last year's Black Hills Unity Concert. Photo credit: David Braun

The once-in-a-lifetime event is hosted at Elk Creek Resort, an all-in-one resort in the Black Hills that nests in the Elk Creek Valley, commonly known as “the Rest of the Black Hills.” It is home to many attractions and features, but unlike many resorts in the Black Hills, the Elk Creek Resort features the Petrified Forest of the Black Hills, which includes a one-hour tour that features the history of the Black Hills from the Earth’s beginning to present-day.

You can register online or if you can't attend, you can participate by donating to help cover production expenses for this free gathering.

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