The holy Sturgis trinity: Noem, Jesus and family

Governor sells sanitized version of rowdy annual motorcycle rally

August 15, 2023 2:30 pm
Gov. Kristi Noem arrives at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground after riding in the Legends Ride for charity on Aug. 9, 2021, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Gov. Kristi Noem arrives at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground after riding in the Legends Ride for charity on Aug. 9, 2021, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A warning to all non-South Dakotans: If you bring your family to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally expecting to meet Jesus, you’re likely to be disappointed. Maybe even offended.

That public service announcement has become necessary to correct the record after a glowing assessment of the rally’s rectitude last week from Gov. Kristi Noem.

She started her weekly newspaper-style column on Friday with this observation: “I didn’t think I’d find so much Jesus at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.” That was in reference to a pancake breakfast hosted by a religious organization.

She went on to describe the rally as “an event for the whole family.”

As she published those words, the 2023 rally was on its way to piling up 11 deaths from fatal crashes, 127 total traffic accidents, 120 drunken driving arrests, 401 drug arrests, one officer-involved shooting, and five arrests for attempted sexual exploitation of a minor or attempted enticement of a minor.

One rallygoer is charged with making terrorist threats after authorities allegedly found him in possession of several guns, body armor, bomb-making materials, an object that appeared to be a pipe bomb, and a manifesto that included descriptions of murder, mass killings and crimes against children.

Noem was apparently looking past all that when she described the rally as a celebration of “faith, family, and Freedom” (she and her aides often type that last word with a capital “F,” which I can only assume is the result of a gubernatorial decree or a broken keyboard).

As a writer, I do have to give Noem points for creativity. Her lead sentence was an attention-grabber, and her Disney-like description of the rally was strikingly original.

But I’ve been to the rally, so I know that if you go there looking for Jesus, you’ll probably also encounter plenty of crude language, crass commercialism, binge drinking and near-to-total nudity.

The focus of Noem’s column was the “unsung heroes” who deal with all of that craziness — religious groups, mechanics, law enforcement officers and first responders. Indeed, a lot of people do a lot of thankless work to limit the problems that come with cramming hundreds of thousands of people into a pocket of western South Dakota for 10 days.

Noem vaguely acknowledged some of those problems. As a preface to her gratitude for law enforcement, she wrote, “Anyone who has been to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally knows that it can get rowdy. That’s part of the fun – until it goes too far.” Additionally, while thanking first responders, Noem referenced the “bizarre incidents” they encounter during the rally. 

She didn’t offer any specifics, so I’ll provide a few examples. 

While covering past rallies as a journalist, I wrote about a man who brought a crew of naked, body-painted women to solicit donations for a dubious-sounding charity. Afterward, he fled without paying the group’s hotel bill, stiffing the establishment for more than $17,000.

They make Sturgis an event for the whole family.

– Gov. Kristi Noem, on the 'unsung heroes' of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

I wrote about another man who claimed to be leading a “Bikers for Trump” political movement. Under persistent questioning, he acknowledged that he was simply selling T-shirts emblazoned with that slogan and putting the money in his pocket, rather than sending it to the Trump campaign or any pro-Trump political organization.

And I have covered dozens of heartbreakingly senseless fatal accidents, most of them described by authorities as a “failure to negotiate a curve,” which is often code for a middle-aged, inexperienced motorcyclist driving straight through a bend in the road and into an embankment or ditch.

I’ve had my own share of close calls in the rally-snarled traffic that afflicts all areas of the Black Hills, including an instance when a motorcyclist whipped around a highway curve in the wrong lane and headed straight for the vehicle carrying me, my wife and my kids. We narrowly avoided a head-on collision.

Having said all of that, I’ll acknowledge there are good things that come with the rally. Money gets raised for legitimate charities. Local people pad their incomes by taking rally jobs or renting out their homes. Old friends from around the country reunite for a few days of concerts, campfires and scenic drives.

It’s a mixed bag, for sure. As long as our safety isn’t jeopardized, those of us who live in the Black Hills but aren’t motorcycle enthusiasts tend to view the whole thing as merely an annual annoyance to endure.

I would never begrudge anybody the Freedom — of the capital “F” variety, of course — to attend the rally if they so choose, as long as they do so lawfully.

But trying to sell a sanitized image of the rally as a holy family pilgrimage? That’s just Dumb with a capital “D.”




Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.