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When Recreation and Religion Conflict


Unless you’ve seen the 1970’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, chances are you haven’t witnessed the spectacular igneous intrusion named “Devil’s Tower National Monument” in northwest Wyoming. Upon first glance, an observer dismisses this unique terrain feature as an ancient volcano, starkly rising 867 feet from its boulder-strewn base among rolling prairie hills. In fact, it is not a volcano, but a solidified subterranean fountain of magma, exposed by millions of years of erosion. The lazy Belle Fourche River, still meandering through these high plains, is responsible. The tower is truly a fascinating sight, instilling a sense of awe when approaching it by car on highway 24. No wonder Native Americans revere this site. To them, the tower represents something entirely different from science and geology.


“Bear Lodge”, as the Native Americans have called it, derives its name from ancient folklore, retold through oral tradition. There are many versions of how Bear Lodge came to be, but all of them involve a very large bear in pursuit of fleeing humans. The humans reach the rock (or stump, in some accounts), and take refuge on its flat summit, as it is thrust high into the sky, out of the bear’s reach. Frustrated, the bear claws the sides of the tower, creating the vertical “gashes” that characterize Bear Lodge, and tempt over 5,000 technical rock climbers to the National Monument every year. You don’t need a permit to climb Devil’s Tower, but that doesn’t mean a climber has permission to do so.


According to National Parks literature, many Native Americans still use the tower for spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Indeed, when hiking around Bear Lodge, one can see “prayer cloths”, or small bundles of fabric dangling from conifers. The visitor is asked to leave these items undisturbed, and refrain from photographing them.


Whether people are drawn to Devils Tower for its recreational opportunity or for its spiritual significance, everyone cherishes this rare feature; it is the only one of its kind on the planet. Yet there exists a conflict among the types of visitors the tower sees. With thousands of climbers yearning for its challenge, Devils Tower is literally crawling with humans every day. According to the Parks Service, “Some traditional American Indians view the practice of climbing the Tower as a disrespectful act.” At the same time, the tower involves an interesting climbing history. In 1893, William Rogers and Willard Ripley used a wooden ladder to reach the summit. Since then, countless climbers have inserted pitons and anchors in the rock as they make their roped ascent. The Parks Service decided to compromise between these opposing views: “During the month of June, there is a voluntary climbing closure. The National Park Service asks visitors to refrain from climbing on the Tower or scrambling in the boulders during June out of respect for this being a sacred place and for the large amount or ceremonial use during that month. Some Plains Indian people consider June to be the most sacred month as the summer solstice is traditionally a very important time.” Nevertheless, some Native Americans disapprove of any climbing.


When my wife and I visited Bear Lodge last week in July (our second visit), we camped in its shadow, hiked the trails at its base, and learned about its history. During our brief visit, climbers were scaling the tower as families walked along a paved trail encircling the monument. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed with the climbers, but even more so with one father’s response to his young son’s inquiry upon noticing the prayer cloths within the trees. “Dad, what are those?” “Prayer cloths,” was the apathetic answer. “Is it garbage?” continued the child. “Pretty much so,” replied dad. The boy had a junior ranger checklist in his hand, provided by the Parks Service to get kids involved. He checked off the prayer cloths as “litter.”


Sometimes we forget why we take the time to visit such majestic sites as Bear Lodge. Regardless of what we do when we get there, we all feel a spiritual stirring as we peer over a canyon rim, scan the horizon from a summit, or traverse a flowery meadow. To me, this is paramount in my outdoor interests. I don’t visit these natural wonders for a sense of accomplishment. I visit them as a constant reminder as to my small place in this grand world. I think that’s what the Native Americans had in mind.


We must remember that these places were here long before we were. Furthermore, before Europeans settled North America, Natives already established significances for such sites. Mt. McKinley was first “Denali”, Mt. Rainier was originally “Tacoma”, and Devils Tower was previously “Bea Lodge.” We can obtain the same sense of fulfillment while respecting the cultures surrounding these wonderful places.


Some readers may feel that climbing Devils Tower is not disrespectful. Some may feel that a sensible climber respects that rock, snow, or ice on which he/she depends. Personally, I feel that there are many other rocks to climb. Leave Bear Lodge to the birds, snakes, and the occasional giant bear in pursuit of quailing humans…

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