The First Fifty Years

Ray H. Mattison, Historian
National Park Service

The year 1956 marks the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of Devils Tower National Monument, the first of our national monuments. The same year is likewise the Golden Anniversary of the enactment of the Antiquities Act which authorized the President, by proclamation, to set aside "historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are upon lands owned or controlled by the United States as National Monuments." Under this law and subsequent authorizations, 84 national monuments have now been established.

All who have seen the gigantic stump-like formation, known as Devils Tower, rising some 1,200 feet above the Belle Fourche River, will understand why it inspired the imagination of the Indians. They called it Mateo Tepee, meaning Grizzly Bear Lodge, and had several legends regarding its origin. According to the Kiowas, who at one time are reputed to have lived in the region, their tribe once camped on a stream where there were many bears. One day seven little girls were playing at a distance from the village and were chased by some bears. The girls ran toward the village and when the bears were about to catch them, they jumped to a low rock about three feet in height. One of them prayed to the rock, "Rock, take pity on us--Rock, save us." The rock heard them and began to elongate itself upwards, pushing the children higher and higher out of reach of the bears, When the bears jumped at them they scratched the rock, broke their claws and fell back upon the ground. The rock continued to push the children upward into the sky while the bears jumped at them, The children are still in the sky, seven little stars in a group (the pleiades). According to the legend the marks of the bears' claws may be seen on the side of the rock.

Native American legend picture 200p

Painting of Cheyenne story by Herbert Collins 1936


The Cheyenne version of the origin of the Tower is somewhat different. According to their legend, there were seven brothers. When the wife of the oldest brother went out to fix the smoke wings of her tipi, a big bear carried her away to his cave. her husband mourned her loss deeply and would go out and cry defiantly to the bear. The youngest of the brothers was a medicine man and had great powers. He told the oldest one to go out and make a bow and four blunt arrows. Two arrows were to be painted red and set with eagle feathers; the other two were to be painted black and set with buzzard feathers. The youngest brother then took the bow and small arrows, told the older brothers to fill their quivers with arrows and they all went out after the big bear. At the entrance of the cave, the younger brother told the others to sit down and wait. He then turned himself into a gopher and dug a big hole in the bear’s den. When he crawled in he found the bear lying with his head on the woman's lap. He then put the bear to sleep and changed himself back into an Indian. He then had the unman crawl back to the entrance where the six brothers were waiting. Then the hole closed up. After the Indians hurried away, the bear awoke. He started after them taking all the bears of which he was the leader.

The Indians finally came to the place where Devils Tower now stands. The youngest boy always carried a small rock in his hand. He told his six brothers and the woman to close their eyes. He sang a song, When he had finished the rock had grown. He sang four times and when he had finished singing the rock was just as high as it is today. When the bears reached the Tower, the brothers killed all of the bears except the leader, who kept jumping against the rock. His claws made the marks that are on the rock today. The youngest brother then shot two black arrows and a red arrow without effect. His last arrow killed the bear. The youngest brother then made a noise like a bald eagle. Four eagles came. They took hold of the eagle’s legs and were carried to the ground.

Did You Know?