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Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

(NPS Photo) The namesake rock of Devils Tower National Monument juts from the surrounding landscape.

Between the Black Hills and the Great Plains, a rock monolith juts over a thousand feet into the air. American Indian tribes know it by many names, including Tso-i-e, or “standing on a rock” by the Kiowa, “Bear's Tipi” by the Arapaho, Mato Tipila or “Bear Lodge” by the Lakota, Na Kovehe or “Bear's Lodge” by the Cheyenne, and “Bear's House” by the Eastern Shoshone. In the 19th century, Colonel Richard Dodge led an expedition into the Black Hills. He modified an interpretation of the unattributed Indian name “The Bad God's Tower” into “Devils Tower.” On September 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the formation yet another name when he proclaimed it Devils Tower National Monument, the first national monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. It was noted for the “lofty and isolated rock ... such an extraordinary example of the effect of wind erosion in the higher mountains as to be a natural wonder and an object of historic and scientific interest” (Proc. No. 658).

Ethnographers believe that the expansive territories of ancient tribes overlapped in the region surrounding Devils Tower NM. Archeology shows that people living 11,500-7,500 years ago hunted mammoth and bison using short-range weapons. Geological formations, like steep-walled arroyos, cliffs, and steep drops, helped the tribespeople to trap and kill. Around 3,000-1,500 years ago, people left materials such as basketry, feathers, shell and stone projectile points in caves to the west. Around 1,500-200 years ago, American Indians hunted game with bows and arrows, made pottery, practiced horticulture, and incorporated horses into their everyday lives.

Over twenty American Indian tribes have a cultural connection with the Tower. Among these are six distinct American Indian Nations that have a direct geographical connection to the Tower, meaning that they have lived in the area at some point in their history. These six nations are the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone. For example, Cheyenne oral tradition says that the tribe camped nearby during the winter because there was grass to feed horses, firewood, and protection from the hills from the biting winter winds. Members of these tribes continue to hold the Tower in spiritual reverence for ceremonial visits.

The Tower is part of the American Indian tribes' spiritual culture and figures in creation narratives. According to a Crow legend of the origin of the Tower, the tribe was camped at the Bear's House when a large bear cornered two little girls while they played. Just as the bear reached them, the girls climbed a rock to escape it. The Great Spirit saw that they were in danger and caused the rock to grow out of the ground. As the rock took the girls out of reach, the bear clawed the rock in its attempt to catch them, leaving the deep fissures along the sides. The rock grew so high that the bear could not reach the girls who, according to the legend, are still on top of the rock.

Living American Indian cultures hold sacred narrative or significant stories about Devils Tower. Personal and group rituals continue to be conducted within Monument. Lakota spiritual beliefs revolve around sacred things in the cosmos, like Mato Tipila. For example, to the Lakota, who claim historic and current cultural association with the Tower and the surrounding area, the region is a place to fast, pray, and worship Wakan Tankan, or the Great Mystery, the essence of Lakota spiritual and religious life. The Lakota believe that creation began in the Black Hills. Rituals continue at the Monument today to ensure health for individuals or the tribe, or for personal direction.

Geologists' studies find that the landform resulted from magma that rose up into the surrounding sedimentary rock where it cooled and hardened. Erosion stripped away the softer layers of rock, leaving a tower of harder rock behind. Today, 400,000 visitors every year explore the 1,347 acres protected by the Antiquities Act designation of Devils Tower National Monument. Visitors learn about cultural history from visitor center exhibits. American Indian prayer cloths are often seen along the Tower trail which also gives visitors a firsthand example of current cultural practices. Today, American Indians continue to practice personal and group rituals throughout the monument.

In 2005, visitors to Devils Tower National Monument responded to the question, “In your opinion, what is the national significance of the park?” with these comments:

  • “The significance of the park is due to both its unique geology and its central place in Native American legends and culture.”
  • “The national significance of Devils Tower is that it is a Native American sacred site and of historical value. It also has geological significance as an unusual land formation.”
  • “Because it is a sacred place to the Native American.”
  • “Devils Tower is a unique geologic and cultural resource.”
  • “Devils Tower contributes a unique place where geological history, indigenous people's history and pioneer history are visible together and also live into the present.”

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