Talking Travel Rediscovering America Stephanie Moreland Devils Tower Wyoming

On Sacred Ground: Devils Tower National Monument
By Stephanie Moreland

The Real Thing

When I told people that I was going to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, most looked at me oddly and said, “Where's that, and why are you going there?” Others would have a vague recollection of a giant rock formation they had seen in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, starring Richard Dreyfus

From what I knew already about Devils Tower, this response disconcerted me on a number of levels. And now that I have actually been there, I can say with certainty, that Devils Tower is much more than a set for a Steven Spielberg movie.

I am also sure that every individual who makes the journey to Devils Tower will discover that it has some significant impact on them; as it did on me. A visit to Devil's Tower is something that cannot be fully appreciated on a silver screen.

The Moment

There is a long, winding road that leads for several miles towards to the entrance of the park in which Devils Tower is located. There is one spot in particular on the approach when the Tower appears for the first time. As it came into view, my heart actually began to beat faster. It was then that I became aware of the power of Devils Tower.

I knew when I arrived in Wyoming that I was about to take a journey that leads to sacred ground; and that I would be following a path that so many before me had also followed.

The Centennial

The year 2006 marked the centennial celebrations of Devils Tower as a national monument, but its place in human history began many generations and many thousands of years before.

This monolith has served as a sacred gathering place for Native-American tribes long before Europeans arrived on this continent; and long before new Americans from the eastern part of the U.S. discovered it.

Devils Tower is American history long before it was recorded in any historical documents. As we have learned in recent history, the stories of Native-American peoples have not always been considered part of our history.

But, as I looked over this sacred land, I imagined that I could hear the whispers of the native ancestors, telling me their stories, and beckoning me to bring these stories into the light of the 21st century.

A Monument to America

In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act and President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt signed it into law. The Act was a personal objective of the President and was established because of his concerns about protecting prehistoric Native-American sites and artifacts on Western lands in the United States; lands he personally knew very well.

Under the Act such ruins and lands were called “antiquities.” The Act authorized permits for legitimate archaeological investigations but also imposed penalties for persons taking or destroying antiquities without permission. It also authorized presidents to proclaim "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" as national monuments.

A national monument is similar to a national park, however there is one important difference. A national monument can be so declared by the President alone, whereas a national park requires congressional approval. Also, the goal of a national monument is to preserve a single unique resource, whereas in a national park a host of unique features are protected.

The First National Monument

President Roosevelt was in a hurry to get the legislation passed because he was afraid that Devils Tower would be destroyed by the time Congress named it a national park. Therefore following the passage of the Antiquities Act on September 24th, 1906, he declared Devils Tower, along with 1347 acres of surrounding terrain, a national monument. And when he did this, Devils Tower also became became the first national monument in the United States.

A Geological Mystery

Geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the intrusion of igneous material through the Earth's crust. (Igneous material is composed of rocks that are formed when magma cools and solidifies.) However, these scientists cannot agree on how that process took place. Many of them believe that the previously molten rock that formed the Tower might not actually have surfaced; these geologists believe that Devils Tower could be the remains of a once very large and explosive volcano. Other scientists have concluded that it must have been an eroded remnant of a laccolith, which is a large mass of igneous rock which intrudes through sedimentary rock beds beneath the Earth's surface but doesn’t actually reach the surface. Instead, according to this theory, the underlying rock beds produce an enormous bulge in the layers above. Other theories have suggested that Devils Tower is a volcanic plug or the neck of an extinct volcano. Despite the differing views on the formation of Devils Tower, geologists do agree however that it was indeed igneous material and that when it cooled and underwent several stages of geological processes, Devils Tower took its unique shape.

The Mythical Importance of Devils Tower

There are other, equally fascinating ideas about how Devils Tower took its shape, but they are based on a quite different form of reasoning, oral tradition. Many Native-American tribes have their own ideas about how Devils Tower came to be, and why it is sacred. Devils Tower has also been named Bear’s Tipi, Grizzly Bear’s Lodge, Bear Lodge Butte, Tree Rock, and many others by native people.

A number of Native-American tribes have their own specific stories about how Devils Monument came to be. These include the stories of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Sioux. You can read their stories at Devil's Tower, First Stories.

The Sacred Nature of Devils Tower

According to the National Park Service, over 20 Native-American tribes have cultural affiliations with Devils Tower, and six have both cultural and geographical ties.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone have geographical ties to the tower because at some point in their history, they actually lived there. Many of these tribes still practise traditional ceremonial activities at Devils Tower and have practised them there for decades.

The ceremonies include personal and group rituals, and the telling of sacred narratives. Personal rituals such as prayer offerings, sweat lodge ceremonies, vision quests, and funerals still take place at Devils Tower. Group rituals include the performing of the the Sun Dance. Sacred narratives recount origin legends, legends of cultural heroes, legends of ancient ceremonies and sacred objects. All this oral history has been passed from generation to generation at Devils Tower.

Having witnessed Native-American rituals at Devils Tower, I believe that the centennial celebration should commemorate much more than its 100th year as a declared monument. The celebration should also serve as a reminder to all people of its significance in terms of the indigenous peoples of the United States.

Throughout the world, many indigenous people gather in places of great natural beauty for ceremonial purposes and to affirm their cultures. When you visit Devils Tower you can easily understand why. The visual impact and significance of this place, which extends well beyond the great natural beauty of this site, is powerful. The monument is a towering symbol of the forces of nature and the power inherent in the Earth.

The history and legends that have become part of Devils Tower are part of a larger cultural belief system and oral tradition. The site has defined not one, but many cultures, and determined a way of life for some. This towering giant, in many ways, still determines the way of life for many Native-American people.

Devils Tower and Native-American Heritage Travel

During the festival, I was able to spend some time with Michael Hackwith, a member of the Ogala Lakota Nation. Every year during the spring and summer months, he travels from Missouri to Devils Tower to promote awareness of the importance of the site to Native-American people, and to participate in traditional ceremonies. One of his objectives is to assure that Native Americans visit (or return to) Devils Tower and that their understanding of this sacred place increases.

Throughout 2006, the National Park Service hosted many events celebrating the birth of the Tower's status as a National Monument. For several days in the fall, they celebrated “Native American Heritage Days.” This was the first of what Michael hopes will be many such events when people of all cultures can come together and learn about the history of Native American peoples. Devils Tower would be not only the venue but the catalyst for such cultural sharing.

Michael is a traditional Sundancer, and he is also a teacher, activist, tribal leader, and a very open-minded man. He has a deep faith in his Native-American heritage and beliefs, and he wants to share these with as many people as he can. He and I discussed why there is much reason for Native-American people to feel bitter or angry about events throughout the history of the Americas, but when I spoke with him, he only expressed enthusiasm and hope.

For More Information

The National Park Service and Devils Tower

Visiting Devils Tower

The Belle Fourche Campground at Devils Tower

The Wyoming Convention and Visitors Bureau

Photographs by Stephanie Moreland

As we watched a display of sundancing at Devils Tower, Michael commented: “Sundancing is a rebirthing. It is an offering of a commitment or the sharing of a commitment. It means making a commitment to the Creator.” Traditional Sundancers dance without food and water for days at the beginning and end of the year as part of the rebirthing ritual. The rebirthing ritual is just one of many traditional ceremonies that still take place on these sacred grounds today.

Michael also explained that Devils Tower is not just sacred territory for the Native-American people who actually lived here, but that it was a stopping point for many tribes as they made their way across the Great Plains. In fact, Devils Tower was considered a neutral area, a place of peace where any inter-tribal conflicts were put aside.

Devils Tower was also a place for trading goods, matchmaking, and praying. It was and is therefore one of the most important inter-tribal gathering places on the continent.

In order to help me grasp this importance, Michael asked me to listen to the drumming and then close my eyes and imagine hundreds of teepees sitting side by side beneath the tower; as it would have been for many centuries. He also emphasized that the legends of Devils Tower are not just “great stories” but “explanations of how it was created ... how the Creator made it.” He also told me that many great Native-American leaders have had clear visions at Devils Tower; visions of the future which gave them guidance in terms of leading their people.

Michael has strong personal feelings about Devils Tower. As a member of the Ogala Lakota nation, he feels that it is his responsibility and duty to educate native youth about their ancestry and what the Tower means in a spiritual and historical sense. Looking at the Tower, he said, “Every year, I know I am supposed to be here.”

As I gaze at the Tower again, I cannot help but mourn the loss of something here. Perhaps I am mourning the native people whose bones lie beneath the ground here, or perhaps I am mourning the loss of Native-American history.

The Future of Devils Tower

The National Park Service and others have been working with Native-American people to make changes that will preserve the sanctity of the place. Michael remains positive about the creation of programs like Native American Heritage Days, and he has not given up on sharing his traditions, rituals, and heritage. Above all, he is committed to creating awareness that not all of American history has been recorded yet.

Being in the presence of this great monument, I felt a quiet, solemn, presence, and I knew intuitively that there are many more stories to be told about Devils Tower.

Michael gently interrupted my reverie to tell me that he urges everyone to make a traditional offering of tobacco when coming to Devils Tower. As we parted he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “Make an offering of tobacco and thank the Creator that you have made the journey to this sacred land. Everyone comes here looking for something. If you make an offering, and ask the Creator, he might just answer you.” He then gave me a small amount of tobacco.

As I reluctantly took my last look at Devils Tower, I scattered some tobacco on the gentle breeze. I imagined the whispers of ancient spirits reassuring me that having been given the gift of their story, I would in turn have my own stories to tell.