Devils Tower: Name Is ‘Offensive, Disrespectful, Repugnant’ to Tribes

Getty Images / A bill currently under consideration would officially designation Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge as Devils Tower, a name that is offensive and disrespectful to tribes who still hold ceremonies there.

Senate bill considers designating Devils Tower as official name, tribes opposed

A Senate bill introduced January 9 by Senator Enzi, R-Wyoming, would officially designate the stone tower in Devils Tower National Monument as “Devils Tower,” a name opposed by a number of tribes. The bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

This tower, or pillar, is 867 feet tall, 1,000 feet in diameter at the base, and 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. The National Park Service website states that more than 20 tribes have a cultural affiliation with Devils Tower, and have stories of how the tower was created saying a bear used its claws to score the sides of the pillar. It also meets the Executive Order in 1996 regarding criteria as a sacred site.

Tribes throughout the region where the National Monument stands, near the junction of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota and within the Great Plains Region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, are opposed to designating it as “Devils Tower.” Tribes are also opposed to the name Devils Tower National Monument.

President Theodore Roosevelt created Devils Tower National Monument in 1906; it was the first National Monument in the United States. The name came from an interpreter’s error. Tribes in that region usually had the name “Bear” in the title, either in English or their own language: Bear Lodge, Bear Tipi, House of the Bear, sometimes Mato Tipila, which is Bear Lodge in the Lakota language and also Grey Horn Butte. The earliest photos show inscriptions in the rock, which say “Bear Lodge” and “Mato Tipila.”

In October 2014, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association passed a lengthy resolution in opposition to the name “Devils Tower National Monument.” They pointed out that nine of the 18 national monuments Roosevelt established have since had their name changed. Their resolution pertained to the entire National Monument. Harold Frazier, Cheyenne River Sioux, association president said nothing has changed since 2014. They remain opposed to the title “Devils Tower” whether it applies to the stone tower itself or to the entire National Monument.

Getty Images / A bill currently under consideration would officially designation Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge as Devils Tower, a name that is offensive and disrespectful to tribes who still hold ceremonies there.

Within that 2014 resolution was the statement that the name was “perceived by indigenous elders, leaders and individual tribal members as highly offensive, insulting, disparaging, disrespectful, derogatory and repugnant and serves as a constant irritant that causes displeasure, anger, and ongoing resentment in our community.”

Nothing negative was ever associated with the area or the pillar itself by the tribes, but rather only positive religious and cultural connections, which date back hundreds of years. Those ceremonies continue and at times have been disrupted by visitors to the monument.

Trina Lionhill, Historic Preservation Officer for the Oglala Lakota, said all the tribes in the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association were in agreement and would like the name changed to Bear Lodge. “It’s usually hard to get a consensus,” she laughed. “Changing it would pay a lot of respect to our nations but officially naming it Devils Tower, that is ridiculous.”

Northern Cheyenne President Jace Killsback said: “We don’t like the name Devils Tower. We have actual and significant cultural, historical and spiritual ties to the Bear Lodge. That’s what we call it. We have oral and tribal history that connects us to this sacred place and sacred ceremonies. It’s an integral part of our creation story.

Roy Brown, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe had similar comments. “We definitely support any effort to respect the spiritual significance in terms of naming the monument. We understand the importance of that and how significant the monument is in the spiritual and historical journey of the tribes in our region.”

So whether it’s just the tower itself as Senate Bill S. 70 is considering, or the entire national monument, there’s general opposition to the title “Devils Tower” by the tribes throughout that region surrounding the site