STRAINING MY NECK, I press my chin into the ground. The soil cools my chest, and the sun sits warm and heavy on my back.
My partner, Cheri, a philosophy instructor and yoga teacher, often leads Hatha practices in the mornings. In postures, she flows like water, and I move more like a stop-motion puppet.
“When I’m here, I try to imagine the world from the perspective of the earth,” Cheri says.
Around me, the grass grows high and unkempt, dry and brown. A single blade scratches my cheek. A rabbit thumps across my field of view. The rabbit must feel as if it’s trampling through a desiccated forest, I think.
Just beyond the grass, Devils Tower–or what many local tribes call Bear Lodge–protrudes into the sky like a thimble on the horizon. From this view, I see nothing of the history of the place, of its role in Indigenous lore, of the tourists speckling the landscape, of the climbers scratching at its sides. I see only plains and cars and highway and, beyond it all, the Tower.
We find ourselves here, pushed against the parched Wyoming soil, to learn more about the place’s meaning as a sacred site and, possibly, to climb it.
EIGHT HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN feet from ground to summit, the Tower explodes skyward from red beds of sandstone and prairie as if huffed from the lungs of the earth in petrified steam. Some theories say it’s the hollowed-out heart of a long-dead volcano.
Over a year earlier, my friend Will invited me to tag along for a climb. He was writing his English literature master’s degree project on Indigenous issues at the Tower, and he figured he needed to climb it to understand the heart of the conflict.
We smiled our way up the Durrance Route, one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America,” and I scared myself silly on the first pitch of One-Way Sunset, a striking finger crack. I barely considered the Tower’s cultural significance, much less its history. But something about the Tower drew me, like thousands of others, to explore its vertical walls.
In 1973 fewer than 500 climbers had ventured up the picturesque columns and cracks of the Tower. But as outdoor recreation burst in popularity around the nation, more and more ascensionists frequented the stark outcrop in the plains of Wyoming. In 2014, 5,452 people climbed on the Tower, according to Public Information Officer Nancy Stimson.
Up high, Will and I separated ourselves from all that was below: from the RVs and wailing babies, from the rangers and staff, and from the cultures, peoples and worldviews that consider this place sacred in ways completely foreign to our own.
MILO YELLOW HAIR is a member of the Oglala Lakota and a longtime advocate for Indigenous rights. “My history is…I’m how you would say kind of in an activist mode all the time, and I’m a grandfather and father and high school graduate,” he told me.
Sixty-six years old, Milo was a member of the American Indian Movement and a veteran of “Wounded Knee II”–a seventy-one-day standoff between Indigenous activists, who had seized control of the town of Wounded Knee, and federal officials in 1973. Now, he works on community gardens on the Pine Ridge Reservation and continues to advocate for political and social justice as well as for the cultural preservation of his people.
Milo first set foot beneath the Tower at age eleven or twelve, when his grandfather loaded up the car from his home at Pine Ridge and hit the road. “We’re going to go see our Black Hills,” his grandfather had said.
Over the decades, Milo witnessed tourism grow, along with tensions with Indigenous peoples, as eager adventurers, hands taped and sweaty, flocked to the Tower.
In response, the National Park Service implemented the Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) in 1995. The FCMP mandated the preservation of the rock in its natural state by banning the addition of bolts and other fixed gear and increasing cultural education programs to foster understanding of Indigenous beliefs. The plan also created mandatory closures to preserve raptor habitat, and a voluntary climbing closure during the month of June to promote respect between climbers, Indigenous groups, and the park service.
June is a time of many significant ceremonies linked to the summer solstice, including the sun dance, vision quests, sweat lodges, peace pipe ceremonies, and the Sacred Hoop Run, a 500-mile relay meant to preserve Lakota culture and instill reverence for the Black Hills. The initial management plan dictated that the National Park Service would cease to issue commercial use licenses for guiding services during that month. While the climbing ban was technically voluntary, guiding would effectively be illegal.
Local guides were enraged. In 1996 a collection of locals filed suit over the tenets of the plan. “I’m a Euro-American,” Andy Petefish, one of the plaintiffs, said. “I don’t want to understand Indian religion, and I don’t have to.” The district court overturned the mandatory ban on guiding and commercial climbing during June, but upheld the rest of the plan.
The FCMP represented a compromise between all parties involved. A voluntary ban on climbing, even if only one month, would serve as a starting point for effective dialogue. If climbing had been deemed outright illegal, climbers would have been forced to abide by the ban. With a voluntary closure, climbers and guides would have to choose to demonstrate respect for Indigenous traditions. “We wanted to re-attach Lakota peoples’ umbilical cord to the Black Hills,” Milo said. “But economic considerations always trump Indigenous rights to pray.”
Milo’s grandfather always called them our Black Hills. The Great Sioux Nation, and especially the Lakota, considers the Black Hills to be the spiritual nucleus of their existence. Wind Cave, Milo told me, is the birthplace of the Lakota people, “where we first became acquainted with the beauty of this earth.”
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Black Hills, including Devils Tower, to the Sioux. But Sioux sovereignty didn’t even last a decade. In 1874 General George Custer organized a “geologic expedition” that found gold. Three years later, the US government took back its promise. Now, there’s a city and a state park in the region named for the man who violently impounded land for pecuniary interests.
Over a century later, the Supreme Court deemed that the US government had seized the Black Hills illegally. But they did not mandate a return. Instead, they awarded the tribe a sum of $106 million. The Sioux would not acquiesce. You cannot simply buy sacred land, they argued. They refused the settlement.
The money still sits, accruing interest. Today, it’s worth over $1 billion.
“THE TRUTH ABOUT STORIES is that that’s all we are,” writes Cherokee novelist Thomas King. The stories we tell form our innermost selves and the world we see around us. And modern climbers tell a lot of stories about the Tower.
We tell about how it was made. Geologists call it phonolite porphyry, an igneous rock similar in appearance to granite, but lacking quartz. They say that the rock we can see is about 40 million years old, though they can’t quite agree on how it was formed.
We tell about its first ascent by two local ranchers, on a wooden ladder, during Fourth of July celebrations in 1893. William Rogers planted an American flag on top. A gust of wind sent the flag down to the throngs of spectators, who tore it to pieces and sold them as mementos of the occasion.
We tell about its first free ascent by Fritz Wiessner, in 1937. Jack Durrance and Harrison Butterworth made the second free ascent in 1938 by a different route. Both lines remain classics today.
We tell about the parachutist George Hopkins, who landed on the Tower in October 1941 and couldn’t get off when the rope he’d planned to use tumbled just out of his reach. Hopkins’ plight made national headlines. Jack Durrance scaled the Tower to rescue him, bringing his six-day ordeal to an end.
The “we” that tells these stories is often the dominant “we” of the American climbing community–like myself, largely (but not entirely) white, relatively well-off, and male. These are stories of science and of progress, of individual achievement over an indifferent nature.
But there are other perceptions of this place. Stories create a sense of self, of history, of culture and community; they shape and maintain the world.
Over twenty tribes regard the tower as sacred, and several descriptions circulate of the Tower’s creation. Most renditions share two common elements: a gathering of wanderers and a vicious bear. A group–in some tales youthful girls, in others, boys or warriors–goes wandering on the plains. Lost, they encounter a bloodthirsty grizzly. No ordinary creature, this bear is gargantuan and craves the taste of human flesh. Fleeing and desperate to stay alive, the wanderers pray to the Creator to save them. Suddenly, the ground on which they stand shoots toward the sky.
Sometimes the Tower begins as a rock. Other times, it’s a tree stump that rises from the soil. The bear stands on its hind legs and reaches up, up, toward the top. Relentless, the animal claws away at the rock walls from all sides, forming the columns and cracks we see today. But the wanderers are just out of reach.
In some stories, the group of lost souls are rescued by the night sky itself. They become the stars of the Big Dipper or the Star Girls (Pleaides), forever part of the cosmos around us. Defeated, the bear meanders across the plains and eventually lays itself to rest at Bear Butte, just outside Sturgis, South Dakota.
In this story, salvation comes in community, and in appeal to forces larger than the self–from the benevolence of the natural world, rather than from the power and fortitude of individual humans.
When climbers speak of first ascents, we impose our own stories, and erase those that existed before. As Milo pointed out, climbers often have a “Columbus mentality of being the first there and first for this and the first for that.” The drive to ascend resembles “some gigolo collecting girlfriends,” he said.
“You know Crazy Horse was a man who lived in the present but imagined the future,” Milo told me. “One of his powers, they said, was that he knew the song that could take him to the top of the Tower and that’s where he went for vision-seeking and to try to see what type of life we [the Lakota] have coming up for us.
“You’re never going to find something that says, ‘oh, this is what happened.’ Nobody ever interviewed Crazy Horse. A lot of our younger generations are seduced by the written history and not the oral history of the Lakota people. The people who know those stories are disappearing.”
Atop mountains across the US and the world, ascensionists have found rock piles and artifacts–signs of passage long before modern record-keeping begins. It would be more accurate to say that the ranchers and Wiessner were the first people of European descent to climb the Tower, Milo said.
TRAFFIC PILES UP a quarter mile before the Tower. An enormous American flag waves translucent in the wind, welcoming us into the national monument. A three-wheel motorcycle convention is passing through. Brothers of the Third Wheel, a sign tells us. Lines of tourists twist like steam from a hotdog grill. A man in a pair of overalls steps off his trike in the middle of the road. He takes a selfie.
“Imagine what it must feel like to have your sacred space totally overrun like this,” I say to Cheri. “What effect would it have on your sense of self and of place and ceremony to have all these tourists gaping and snapping photos from their cars?”
Climbers sometimes say Indigenous groups’ claims on the Tower lack authenticity and historical precedent. After all, these climbers say, there didn’t seem to be much Indigenous presence in the area until the 1980s. In fact, though, government agencies aggressively suppressed tribal ceremonies in the region until just before that time. Furthermore, tribes had long sought to maintain spiritual secrecy from whites. Our religion is the one thing you can’t steal from us, they reasoned.
Indigenous peoples were not granted religious freedom until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), which returned rights to worship at sacred sites like the Tower. It also required government agencies to eliminate policies that interfere with the practice of Indigenous religion, but only to the extent that federal directives continued to be maintained. The interests of the park service would often come first.
Many climbers say the government shouldn’t privilege one religion over another; climbing, they claim, offers its own sort of spirituality. In 1995 the Park Service held public hearings over the management plan. Some of the commenters had insisted, “Devils Tower is culturally significant to more than just Indians, climbers, too.” Efforts to regulate climbing led to accusations that the park service was “favoring Indian culture over non-Indian culture.”
Frank Sanders, a guide and local lodge owner, gained fame in 2007 for his Project 365, in which he attempted to climb the Tower every day for a year. In the process, he raised about $10,000 for medical services on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He made a point, however, to climb during the month of June. “You can’t legislate reverence,” he said in a 2013 Climbing interview. “Nobody’s up there with neon lights flashing…. Some of the Natives don’t think that climbing up and down the Tower is showing reverence. Well, until they go climbing, they don’t understand what a spiritual experience it is.”
“If I was able to rock climb, I wouldn’t do it,” says David Bearshield, a member of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa, who first visited the Tower nearly two decades ago. “But times have changed.”
The future of the Tower and of sacred sites across the nation lies in promoting education about their history and meaning for all people to understand, he says. For Bearshield, the power of the Tower for both climbers and First Nations people stems from the same source. “I hope that when they go there if they are troubled or they are going through something or there is an unbalance in their life, that when they’re climbing they reach that significant spiritual balance that they’ve been looking for,” he says. “That when they leave from there they’ll take a piece of that with them.”
James Walks Along, the historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne, says that climbing still makes many members of his tribe angry: “It’s like putting a knife in your side.” His comments echoed sentiments voiced two decades earlier, reacting to the original climbing management plan at the Tower.
“When climbers hammer objects into the butte…. It is like they are pounding stakes into our bodies,” Arvol Looking Horse had said in 1998. Even though modern climbers shy away from the damaging use of pitons, the act of climbing can bring with it disturbing traces of chalk and wrappers and toilet paper; a blare of yells and noise and lights; and the dislodging of rock and dirt that have been in place for centuries.
FRUSTRATED BY THE TRAFFIC in the park’s main corridors, Cheri and I seek refuge on the quieter Joyner Ridge Trail.
“Maybe climbing isn’t the problem itself,” I say to Cheri as we walk. “Maybe climbing is just a symptom of a larger problem. What this place has become. All this. Nobody means for it to be this way, but when you take a step back, it’s all part of the same thing, and that means erasing history, erasing Indigenous identity.”
In Life and Death on Mt. Everest, anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner describes a common attitude among climbers: “The spirituality and transcendence of mountaineering contrasts with the crass materialism and pragmatism of modern life.” Climbers see scaling walls as a solitary affair, disconnected from history and culture, sociality and politics. We seek a pristine and isolated wilderness in which we may find awe, wonder, inspiration, thrill and authenticity. The sublime adventure would not be possible, however, without the amenities of modern life–adequate leisure time, social safety nets and the expendable capital necessary to build skill and buy gear. Far from erasing history, climbing depends on it.
“I’m kind of stumped right now,” Cheri says. “Even just us being here, trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, we’re still contributing.”
We pass a sign encouraging respect for prayer flags and ties and bundles in the park. We meander by several such bundles: at a quick glance, the only signs of modern Indigenous presence.
Dorothy FireCloud, a member of the Sicangu Lakota and superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument from 2006-2012, thinks education can help passersby understand the significance of traces like these prayer bundles. “And hopefully…people would then make a decision on their own not to climb,” she says. “It worked well with what the tribal elders wanted.”
When she worked at the Tower, three of the six sites managed by the National Park Service in the Black Hills area had Native American leadership. Now, she says, none do. True change could mean instilling a larger Native voice into the Park Service itself.
FireCloud said places such as the Tower need time to take a break, to recharge from the constant barrage of RVs and tourists.
“When we’ve had those government shutdowns, I’ve always seen it as a real positive to allow those places to heal themselves a little bit,” she says. “It gives them a time to take a breath.”
Back at the trailhead, three figures huddle near our truck. One holds a sign advertising GOAL, a tribal coalition to protect the sacred grizzly bear. Another holds a headdress. The man with a headdress introduces himself as Arvol Looking Horse, Chief of the Nakota, Dakota and Lakota, and the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe.
Looking Horse has just finished an interview with CNN, he tells me, and he’s eager to speak about the cultural significance and history of the Tower.
The grizzly bear has long featured in the myths surrounding the Tower. The name “Devils Tower” comes from a mistranslation of “Bad God’s Tower,” as spoken to Richard Irving Dodge during his 1875 scientific expedition through the Black Hills. Henry Newton’s 1879 Map of the Black Hills of Dakota–based on his 1875 travels–pinpoints the formation as “Grizzly Bear Lodge.” The Graphic Company’s 1875 map of the region also demarcates “Bear Lodge.”
To Arvol Looking Horse and many others, modern names equate Indigenous beliefs and spirituality with devilry. “Devils Tower, Devils Lake, it all starts to add up,” he says. In recent years, tribal alliances have sought to change the name to Bear Lodge, after the traditional Lakota “Mato Tipila.” Politicians and local ranchers continue to resist the change. Devin Traff, of the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names, says that “the concern with the name would be the loss of brand equity and economic considerations.”
Looking Horse tells us the majesty of the Tower goes far deeper than its visual and economic appeal. It isn’t a brand; it’s a cathedral.
“We don’t want people climbing here at all,” he says.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE SCHOLARS David Schlosberg and David Carruthers argue that harms against sacred sites damage communities as a whole, not just individuals. The spiritual practices, traditions and ceremonies that take place at the Tower breathe life into a culture and a people. “The survival of Native nations is directly linked to their sustainable interaction with the land, and with the practices, ceremonies, and beliefs tied to that place,” they write.
The tourists snapping photos and the climbers scaling the walls are all part of a long history that has drained the power out of the Tower, Milo said. To the Lakota and other tribes, this power energizes the entire world, maintains order and harmony in the universe.
When modern climbers see wild features like the Tower, we too easily forget what role they may serve in our everyday lives. Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday described the Tower as “upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun.”
Basking in the otherworldliness and magnificence of the Tower, we’re suddenly aware of the wonder in everything around us–from the forests and mountains to the wildness in our backyards and gardens, the weeds that wiggle through the cracks of our sidewalks, the coyotes that scrounge through our garbage under the cover of night.
“Let’s take this moment to practice gratitude,” Cheri said one morning. “Gratitude for what this place means to so many people, for its history, for the ability to be here at all. Sometimes, it’s the very best that we can do.”
She was right. William Cronon reminds us that interacting positively with places like the Tower “means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come together to make the world as we know it.”
Lovers of the wild, followers of the unexplored, seekers of the gargantuan and hard-to-get-to and jagged and rugged and beautiful, we should climb informed and reflective of the stories of the places we frequent; we should climb engaged, not oblivious; we should climb connected and conscious and thankful. Above all, we should climb respectfully–of both people and place–and tread lightly. And sometimes, that means not climbing at all.
CHERI AND I get in the truck and crank up the air conditioner. We look at each other, both fully aware of what’s on the other’s mind. Cheri waits for me to go first.
“I don’t think we should climb the Tower today,” I say.
“I think we’ve known that all along,” she says.
Driving out of the Monument, I can still see the Tower in the rearview mirror. Against the grime-caked glass, it almost sparkles.
–Nick Mott, Rocky Mountains