How is Devils Tower a Sacred Site to American Indians

A Sacred Site to American Indians

George L. San Miguel
August 1994

"A review of the ethnographic literature demonstrates that Devils Tower was a sacred area for several Plains Tribes, and that it has been encoded as an important landmark in tribal narratives."1

According to the National Park Service, over twenty tribes have potential cultural affiliation with Devils Tower National Monument. 1

  • Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana
  • Blackfeet
  • Blood (Canada)
  • Confederated Kootenai & Salish Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana
  • Cheyenne River Lakota
  • Crow
  • Crow Creek Lakota
  • Eastern Shoshone
  • Flandreau Santee Dakota
  • Lower Brule Lakota
  • Northern Arapaho
  • Northern Cheyenne
  • Oglala Lakota
  • Piikani (Canada)
  • Rosebud Lakota
  • Sissteon-Wahpeton Dakota
  • Southern Arapaho
  • Southern Cheyenne
  • Spirit Lake Lakota
  • Standing Rock Lakota
  • Three Affiliated Tribes
  • Turtle Mountain Chippewa
  • Yankton Dakota
Tribes with historical and geographical ties to the Devils Tower area include: 1
  • Arapaho
  • Crow
  • Lakota
  • Cheyenne
  • Kiowa
  • Shoshone
Traditional ceremonial activities which demonstrate the sacred nature of Devils Tower to American Indians include: 1

Personal Rituals:
Prayer offerings (bundles and cloths), sweatlodge ceremonies, vision quests, funerals.

Group Rituals:
Sun Dance

Sacred Narratives:
Origin legends, legends of culture heros, and legends of the origins of ceremonies and sacred objects.

Among these rituals, all are still practiced at Devils Tower except for funerals. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Lakota all have a similar sacred origin legend for Devils Tower. See Gunderson 1988 for descriptions of these legends. 2

Arapaho call Devils Tower "Bear's Tipi."

The Arapaho people have a sacred narrative or legend on the origin of Bear's Tipi. 1

Sherman Sage, an Arapaho, said that his grandfather, Drying-Up-Hide, was buried near Devils Tower. 2

The Cheyenne call Devils Tower "Bear's Lodge," "Bear's House," "Bear's Tipi," and "Bear Peak."

The Cheyenne camped and hunted at Devils Tower in the winter. 1

"This (Devils Tower) was a very holy place to us." 2

The Cheyenne people have a sacred narrative or legend on the origin of Bear's Lodge. 1

"A band of Cheyenne Indians went on one of its visits to 'Bear's Tipi' to worship the Great Spirit, as did many other tribes before the white man came. The Cheyenne braves took their families with them as they felt that would be safe, as Bear's Tipi was a holy place." 2

Devils Tower is where Sweet Medicine died and it is his final earthly resting place. Sweet Medicine is the great culture hero of the Cheyenne who brought the Four Sacred Arrows to the tribe. The Four Sacred Arrows' sanctuary was located within a secret cave on the south side of Bear's Lodge. 1 Sweet Medicine also founded the Cheyenne Warrior Societies, tribal government, special laws, and ceremonies. As Sweet Medicine lay dying in a hut by Bear's Lodge, he foretold a dark prophecy of the coming of the horse; the disappearance of the old ways and the buffalo, to be replaced by slick animals with split hoofs the people must learn to eat (cattle). He told of the coming of white men, strangers called Earth Men who could fly above the earth, take thunder from light, and dig up the earth and drain it until it was dead. 2

The Crow call Devils Tower "Bear Lodge."

The Crow have a sacred narrative or legend on the origin of Bear's House. 1

The Crow people were known to fast and worship at Devils Tower and built small stone "dream houses" there as part of these vision quests. 2 The stone dream houses were about as long as a man is tall. A man would recline inside with his head to the east and feet to the west, "like the rising and setting sun."

The Kiowa call Devils Tower "Aloft on a Rock" and "Tree Rock."

The Kiowa people have a sacred narrative or legend on the origin of Tree Rock. 1

"...origin memories of American Indian people reveal none anywhere 'as bright- and remote-' as the Kiowas memories of their days in the Black Hills and at Devils Tower." 2

Lakota (Sioux)
The Lakota call Devils Tower "Bear Lodge," "Bear Lodge Butte," "Grizzly Bear's Lodge," "Mythic-owl Mountain," "Grey Horn Butte," and "Ghost Mountain." The Lakota people have a sacred narrative or legend on the origin of Bear Lodge. 1

The Lakota often had winter camps at Devils Tower. 2 This is documented at least as far back as around 1816. 1

The Lakota claim to have an ancient and sacred relationship with the Black Hills of South Dakota and with Devils Tower and Inyan Kara in the Black Hills of Wyoming. The Black Hills are the Lakota's place of creation. 1

A Sioux legend tells of a Lakota band camped in the forest at the foot of Bear Lodge. They were attacked by a band of Crow. With the supernatural assistance of a huge bear, the Lakota were able to defeat the Crow. 2

At Devils Tower, they fasted, prayed, left offerings, worshipped the "Great Mystery" (the essence of Lakota spiritual and religious life), and performed sweatlodge ceremonies. Lakota pray for health, welfare, and personal direction. 1

The healing ceremony is known to have been performed at Bear Lodge, conducted by a healing shaman. The Great Bear Hu Numpa imparted the sacred language and ceremonies of healing to Lakota shamans at Bear Lodge. In this way, Devils Tower is considered the birthplace of wisdom. 1

"White Bull told of 'honor men' among the people who went up close to Devils Tower for four-day periods, fasting and praying. There they slept on beds of sagebrush, taking no food or water during this time. Once, five great Sioux leaders-Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Gall, and Spotted Tail-went there together to worship. We did not worship the butte, but worshipped our God." 2

Vision quests are a very intense form of prayer requiring much preparation, fasting, purification rite (sweatlodge/inipi), and solitude 1. It is a ritual integral to the construction of Lakota identity. In addition to learning lore and moral teachings, individuals who seek visions, "often regain clarity of purpose in their lives and a secure identity as a member of their tribe." Men and women may seek a vision for a variety of reasons: to give thanks, to ask for spiritual guidance, or simply to pray in solitude. 3 One of Devils Tower National Monument's archeological sites, assessed by archeologist Bruce Jones in 1991, is a post-1930's shelter made of stone and wood which could have been used for vision quests.

A Lakota legend tells of a warrior undergoing a vision quest at the base of Bear Lodge for two days. Suddenly, he found himself on the summit. He was frightened since he did not know how to get back down. After praying to the Great Spirit for assistance he fell asleep. Upon awakening, he found himself back down from the butte. 2

The Lakota traditionally held their sacred Sun Dance at Devils Tower around the summer solstice. The Belle Fourche River was known to the Lakota as the Sun Dance River1. Bear Lodge is considered a sacred place of renewal. The Sun Dance is a ceremony of fasting and sacrifice that leads to the renewal of the individual and the group as a whole. The Sun Dance takes away the pain of the universe or damage to Nature. The participant suffers so that Nature stops suffering. The Sun Dance is "...the supreme rite of sacrifice for the society as a whole..." and "...a declaration of individual bravery and fortitude..." "Young men went through the Sun Dance annually to demonstrate their bravery as though they themselves had been captured and tortured, finally struggling to obtain their freedom."3 The tearing of the pierced flesh is symbolic of obtaining freedom and renewal. NPS records indicate that modern Sun Dance ceremonies have been held at Devils Tower since 1983.

The Lakota also received the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, the most sacred object of the Lakota people, at Bear Lodge by White Buffalo Calf Woman, a legendary spiritual being. The sacred pipe's sanctuary was located within a secret cave on the north side of Bear Lodge. 1 In 1875, General George A. Custer swore by the pipe that he would not fight Indians again. "He who swears by the pipe and breaks oaths, comes to destruction, and his whole family dies, or sickness comes upon them." 3 Pipes often are held as sacred objects used in vision quests, Sun Dances, sweatlodge rites, and in making peace.

Eastern Shoshone

The Eastern (Plains) Shoshone claim to have a sacred association with Devils Tower. Their religious world, however, is kept very secret and, as a result, cannot be documented at this time.1

1. Hanson, J. R. and S. Chirinos. 1991. "Ethnographic Overview and Assessment of Devils Tower National Monument." University of Texas, Arlington.

2. Gunderson, M. A. 1988. "Devils Tower - Stories in Stone." High Plains Press. Glendo, Wyoming.

3. Evans, M. J. et. al. "NAGPRA Consultation and the National Park Service." An Ethnographic Report on Pipe Springs National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument, Tuzigoot National Monument, Montezuma National Monument, and the Western Archeological and Conservation Center. March 4, 1993. Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona.

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