In a remote corner of northeastern Wyoming, Devils Tower National Monument thrusts itself into the air. The Tower, formed fifty-four million years ago, is a massive and heavily contested monolith; various Native tribes and many Caucasian Americans all claim it as sacred. The Tower is both a National Monument and on the National Register of Historic Places as a piece of “traditional cultural property” (Dussias 18). The understanding of the sacred claims to Devils Tower is vital to the study of the nature of religion in the American West.

Devils Tower is an immensely important sacred site for various Plains tribes including the Eastern Shoshone, Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota, among others. Many of these tribes refer to the tower as “Bear’s Lodge” due to the oral traditions and creation myths that revolve around it (Dussias 14). It is difficult, if not impossible, for cultural outsiders to fully understand and explain Native worldviews, especially when attempting to explain different religious practices and beliefs. This is because Native religiosities and ways of life are intricately intertwined. With this, oral histories play an integral role in day-to-day life, much unlike Western traditions. For example, Crow oral history tells us that two girls were cornered by a large bear near the present-day Tower, and in response, the Great Spirit helped them by growing Devils Tower out of the ground (Hanson and Chirinos 19). The girls reached the top, and the vertical ridges on Tower are remnants of the bear’s attempts to reach them (Hanson and Chirinos 19). The neighboring Lakota believe that they received their most sacred object, the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, from its original location of Devils Tower (Hanson and Chirinos 21). Many tribes today still use Devils Tower and the land around it for religious activities such as burials and vision quests; they also leave prayer bundles and offerings at the site (Dussias 15). Basso tells us that, in his case study of the Western Apache, their religion— and in extension, way of life — is learned through connecting with the landscape (67). This can be directly applied to the study of Native claims to Devils Tower.

When Devils Tower fell under federal control in the 1892, the tower immediately became a popular climbing destination. The first complete climb of the tower, in the 1890s, had over 3,000 spectators watc450px-Durrance_Route_(Devils_Tower)hing from the bottom. Today, there are approximately 6,000 climbers who scale the walls of Devils Tower annually. These people crack climb, face climb, and aid climb, and all of these different techniques cause harm to the physical integrity of the tower. This is because these types of climbing require the insertion of bolts and holes into the face of Devils Tower. This climbing also disrupts the visual appearance of the tower and creates disruptive noise. It harms various birds who nest in the Tower’s crevices. Despite these effects, many non-Natives claim to experience religious satisfaction from the act of climbing, and argue that they do not feel the same way climbing anywhere else (Dussias 20).

When looking at these two claims to Devils Tower, it is clear that it is a site of conflict between the Native claims and Caucasian climbers’ claims. As discussed in the “Introduction,” sacred spaces, such as Devils Tower, are inherently contested spaces.  Here, non-Native climbers argue for the ability to recreationally and commercially use Devils Tower (Dussais 14). The Natives disagree, and argue that their historically-based belief that the Tower is a sacred site should restrict and even prohibit this activity. Native groups argue that the physical act of climbing suggests a lack of appreciation for their culture, and many compare climbing the Tower with “climbing a church and putting holes in it” (Dussoas 25). With this, tribes explain that climbing, especially during the month of June, has caused spirits to leave the area (Dussias 25). In response to these claims, the National Parks Service put a voluntary climbing ban in place for June. They also expanded their visitor education programs to include the histories and cultures of the neighboring Plains tribes.

In contrast, non-Native climbers argue that their religious experiences scaling the walls of the Tower are no less legitimate than those of the Plains tribes. Though the rate of climbing in the month of June has significantly decreased after the ban, some visitors still climb, again arguing that they are entitled to partake in their religious experiences at any time in the year.

The controversy around Devils Tower is vitally important to the study of the religion of the American West. Richard White explains that to understand the religious history of the West was to understand different sets of relationships. Here, the relationship between the land, Devils Tower, and the people, the Plains Indians, aid our understanding of religion in the American West. This is not only the case at Devils Tower, but is also applicable at other sites and for other Native cultures across the West.

–Lillia McEnaney, December 9, 2015

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Brady, Joel. “‘Land Is Itself a Sacred, Living Being:’ Native American Sacred Site Protection on Federal Public Lands Amidst the Shadow of Bear Lodge.” American Indian Law Review 24, no. 1 (1999/2000): 153-186.
  • Freedman, Eric. “Protecting Sacred Sites on Public Land: Religion and Alliances in the Mato Iipila-Devils Tower Litigation.” American Indian Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2007): 1-22.
  • Grimm, Lydia T., “Sacred Lands and the Establishment Clause: Indian Religions Practices on Federal Lands.” Natural Resources and Environment 12, no. 1 (1997): 19-24.
  • Hanson, Jeffery R. and David Moore. “Applied Anthropology at Devils Tower National Monument.” Plains Anthropologist 44, no. 170 (1999): 53-60.
  • Sundstrom, Linea. “Mirror of Heaven: Cross-Cultural Transference of the Sacred Geography of the Black Hills.” World Archaeology 28, no. 2 (1996): 177-189.
  • Webb, Melody. “Cultural Landscapes in the National Parks Service.” The Public Historian 9, no. 2 (1987): 77-89.

Featured Image: Devils Tower, cropped for use here.  Used according to the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Image 1: Durrance Route.  Public domain.