A fight to rename America’s first national monument

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

A stone monolith looms over the plains of northeastern Wyoming, its summit standing 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. People have been drawn here since ancient times, and the rock has many names. Mato Tipila. Bear Lodge. Grey Horn Butte. Aloft-on-a-Rock. Ghost Mountain.

Most, however, know it as Devils Tower.

The country’s first national monument, it sees nearly 500,000 visitors each year. They come to pray and perform religious ceremonies, to climb the cracks sweeping up its sheer sides, and to walk the base and gaze upward.

But a battle wages here, with the history of American Colonialism continuing to unfold in the fight over its name.

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An effort is underway to change the name of Devils Tower to Bear Lodge National Monument, the English translation of an American Indian name. In October 2016, Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote was preparing to appeal to the Department of the Interior. Old Coyote had support from the 10 tribes of the Coalition of Large Tribes, as well as tribal resolutions from the Cheyenne River Sioux, the Rosebud Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne.

More than 25 tribes have cultural and spiritual connections to the tower, some dating back more than 1,000 years. In one tribe’s myth, children were saved from a predacious bear when the rock beneath their feet rose skyward. The bear clawed at the rock, creating cracks on its sides, and the children became stars.

In Wyoming, the idea of a name change is not a popular one. The tower is a source of tourism revenue, and homesteading families have known it as Devils Tower as far back as eight generations.

The current name purportedly arose when a guide with U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Dodge’s 1875 expedition misinterpreted a native name to mean Bad God’s Tower, which was later abbreviated to Devils Tower—the missing apostrophe was a clerical error. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first national monument there, scribing the name in ink. Some tribes say it equates cultural and religious traditions practiced there to devil worship; others say it demonizes a sacred place.

The renaming proposal follows two others in the same vein, both of which were successful. In August 2015, the Obama administration changed North America’s highest peak from Mount McKinley to its native Athabascan name Denali, meaning “the high one.” A year later, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names renamed Harney Peak, South Dakota, to Black Elk Peak, in honor of a Lakota holy man.

The National Park Service, which manages the site, does not have a position on the controversy, and Devils Tower National Monument Superintendent Tim Reid says unofficial comments from visitors and interested parties seem evenly split. A 2015 Crook County Commission survey of nearly 1,000 local residents showed that 92 percent favored the name Devils Tower.

“It is unthinkable to change the name of Yellowstone, America’s first National Park, or to change the name of Shoshone, our country’s first National Forest,” said outgoing Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis in an emailed statement. “Why should Devil’s Tower [sic], our first National Monument, be any different? It has been called Devil’s Tower for over 100 years, is known far and wide under that name, and should keep that name.”

In 2015, Lummis and Wyoming Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso introduced bills to retain the name Devils Tower. The pending legislation blocks the U.S. Board on Geographic Names from considering a 2014 appeal—this by Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse to rename the rock formation and unincorporated town to Bear Lodge—until April 2017.

Chris Mickey, spokesman for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, says a change would confuse national and international visitors, causing visitation loss. Both arguments echo opposition to a similar proposal in 1929.

Others say this is about more than economics. According to Dr. Jeffrey Means, chair of the University of Wyoming’s history department and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, it’s about hegemony.

“It’s the continuation of the colonial process where one culture dominates another,” Means said, referencing 19th century assimilation policies lasting into the 1970s, which criminalized tribal religious practices, forced Indian children into boarding schools, and sterilized Indian women without their knowledge. “Naming is a demonstrable power relationship.”

Reed Robinson, former superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, says the name matters—a lot. Robinson is also a Rosebud Sioux tribal member and is now program manager of the Park Service’s Midwest Region Office of Indian Affairs. From a personal perspective, he said removing that moniker would be significant for American Indians. “It reminds us we’re a country that takes personal inventory.”

The original inhabitants of the American West can teach us something here: They believe the Earth is part of us, and names are powerful. Indeed, in the interest of caring for our shared land, we must keep our minds open and listen to each other.

Emily Stifler Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the founding editor of Mountain Outlaw.