work journal

The Bear and the Devil

January 28, 2024

A stone monolith looms over the plains of northeastern Wyoming, its summit standing 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. People have been drawn here since ancient times, and the rock has many names.

Mato Tipila. Bear Lodge. Grey Horn Butte. Aloft-on-a-Rock. Ghost Mountain.

Most, however, know it as Devils Tower.

More than 25 tribes have cultural and spiritual connections to the tower, some dating back more than 1,000 years. In one tribe’s myth, children were saved from a predacious bear when the rock beneath their feet rose skyward. The bear clawed at the rock, creating cracks on its sides, and the children became stars.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first national monument there, scribing the name in ink. Some tribes say it equates cultural and religious traditions practiced there to devil worship; others say it demonizes a sacred place.

In this story, I looked at an Indigenous-led effort to change the name, and including perspectives from people on both sides. This is a long standing controversy, as reported in this 1995 story in High Country News. In 2023, several years after I quoted her in the story, Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis introduced a bill to retain the name Devil's Tower for both the monument and the nearby town. The bill, similar to several past pieces of proposed legislation, is now sitting in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The tower is a source of tourism revenue, and homesteading families have known it as Devils Tower as far back as eight generations. The current name purportedly arose when a guide with U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Dodge’s 1875 expedition misinterpreted a native name to mean Bad God’s Tower, which was later abbreviated to Devils Tower—the missing apostrophe was a clerical error.

As I read this story now six years after it was published, I'm struck by how much I still have to learn from the people I've gotten to interview over the years, and how much this past vocation informs my work now as a facilitator and coach.

Reed Robinson, former superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, says the name matters—a lot. Robinson is a Rosebud Sioux tribal member and, as of 2024, is Director of Tribal Relations at U.S. Forest Service.

Robinson said removing that moniker would be significant for American Indians. “It reminds us we’re a country that takes personal inventory.”

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