Towering Conflicts: Bear Lodge/Devils Tower and the Climbing Moratorium
Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming is an iconic geologic formation and the nation’s first national monument. Featured in the Hollywood film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and on the Wyoming state license plate, it is claimed by Euroamerican residents of Wyoming and surrounding states as a significant heritage landscape. It also has been, for centuries, a sacred site for indigenous groups of the northwestern Great Plains, for whom it is mata tipi paha or “Bear Lodge.” Controversy has erupted over the name itself, with indigenous people objecting to the preponderance of geographic names containing “devil,” as demeaning to their sacred places.
In addition, practices associated with Euroamerican and indigenous uses of the mountain are at odds. As a sacred site, it is home to prayer and ritual and a “vision quest” site, where young men might obtain a spiritual vision and protector, often in animal form. Differing uses by Euroamericans have led to low-level conflict for several decades. In the past 15 years, a more potent controversy has erupted, involving technical climbing by young, middle-class euroamericans: an activity felt by many indigenous people to be inherently destructive, involving the insertion of metal bolts into the mountainside. Rock-climbing is part of an ideology of wilderness adventurism highly popular in mainstream American culture. Although linked to environmentalism, this perspective values the recreation uses of public lands, while being suspicious of other uses, especially religious ones. Thus, the decision taken by the US Park Service to impose a voluntary climbing moratorium during the month of June, when many ritual observances occur, has angered many.
This paper will examine differing ideologies associated with both euroamerican and indigenous uses of the mountain, and of landscape more generally. Implications for similar sites—especially those designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites—will be discussed.
Keywords: landscape, sacred sites, environmental ideology, public lands
Prof. Michael Harkin
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wyoming