Saturday, November 9, 2013


Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower), Wyoming.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013.

High on every list of sites that are sacred to Native Americans is Bear Lodge Butte, listed on our maps and in our records as Devil’s Tower. I can remember being fascinated with this pretty much all of my life after seeing a picture of it in a Little Golden Guide to Geology as a child.

Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower), Wyoming.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013

In his book Where Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, Peter Nabokov gave a description of the beliefs and mythology that are attached to this location by Native Americans. “Best known of the Black Hills outliers was what Indians called Bear Lodge Butte, but which whites in offensive contrast to its heroic role in Indian mythology, came to name “Devil’s Tower.” Remembered by most Americans, this volcanic upthrust, located to the north of the Hills that jutted into the sky like a great horn with its tip lopped off, was the Mother Ship’s landing pad in director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But to the Kiowa tribe the 867-foot promontory was revered as T’sou’a’e, or “Aloft on a Rock.” Here was the embarkation point for that early period in Kiowa Indian history that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday called “the setting out.” From these high plains their ancestors migrated south, to ultimately reach the area of Rainy Mountain in western Oklahoma, where their reservation is found today.
Like a number of Plains Indian tribes, the Kiowa never forgot the Tower’s place in their mythology. They told of the seven sisters and a brother who were playing together. Transformed into a monster bear, the brother attacked his sisters, who ran for their lives. When they reached a giant tree stump it told them “climb up on me.” Once they were on top the stump began to grow, leaving the bear pawing at them and raking its sides with his claws – those vertical grooves remain to this day. On the summit the girls were finally safe, but the Kiowa say the sisters then ascended into the sky, to become the constellation we know as the Big Dipper (other tribal versions say the Pleiades).” (Nabokov 2006:215-16)
We finally undertook the trip there in June 2013. A long day’s drive got us to Sundance, Wyoming, which serves as the gateway to the Devil’s Tower National Monument. In Sundance we had a nice motel room at a reasonable price, and ate fine meals in a couple of good restaurants. The next day we drove out to the tower itself. It was every bit as impressive as I had hoped. We hiked around the spire and saw probably a couple of dozen rock climbers working their way up various routes. I could certainly get a small sense of the unease that Native American peoples feel to a greater extent seeing these people climbing up this sacred rock.

Offerings at Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower),
Wyoming. Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013.

While walking around the vicinity of the rock many small offerings could be seen in the trees in various locations around the tower reinforcing its spiritual nature for some people. I am pleased to be able to report that there does not seem to be any meddling with these offerings, such as collecting or removing them. 

As we might imagine for a site with such spiritual significance there is rock art in the area although the park personnel greet such inquiries with an assumed air of ignorance. In her interesting book Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country, Linea Sundstrom has illustrated petroglyphs at a site designated 48CK1544, which is located within view of the tower.

Left side of main panel, Site 48CK1544, 
Sundstrom, Fig 12.4, p. 146.

Right side of main panel, 48CK1544,
Sundstrom, Fig. 12.4, p.147

Incised face and design, 48CK1544,
Sundstrom, Fig. 12.6, p.147.

Sundstrom wrote about the rock art near Devil's Tower "petroglyphs located upon a ridge within distant view of Devil's Tower reflect a link between landscape and rock art. Although they are part of the incised rock art tradition, these petroglyphs are unlike others in the area. Some of the rock art represents thunder beings - eagle- or hawklike creatures with outspread wings (fig. 12.4). One petroglyph shows a creature with some human and some thunderbird characteristics. Perhaps these record the trance of some vision seeker."

For more about the rock art near Devil's Tower and, indeed, for rock art throughout the Black Hills region read Linea Sundstrom's writings. And, for a great trip to a beautiful area, and a moving experience, I highly recommend a visit to Bear's Lodge Butte/Devil's Tower.


Nabokov, Peter
2006    Where Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred
 Places, Peter Nabokov, Viking Press, New York.

Sundstrom, Linea
2004     Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country
           University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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