In Wyoming’s Black Hills stands a massive geological monument called Devils Tower. To the Northern Plains tribes—the Lakotas, Arapahos, Cheyennes, Shoshones, Crows, and Kiowas—this monument is known by older names: Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Bear Peak, and Tree Rock. Like its names, the views and value of the Tower differs between U.S. American and Indigenous peoples.
Devils Tower is a magma pillar which cooled underground until erosion over geologic time exposed it. Scientists have studied the formation since the 1880s and still do not fully agree on the processes. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as the first U.S. National Monument. Among its 400,000 visitors annually, rock climbers enjoy the unique challenge of scaling its large column formations.
To indigenous peoples, Bear Lodge has a rich spiritual history and significance. A Lakota elder, Johnson Holy Rock, said when asked about the region, “If a man was starving, he was poor in spirit and in body, and he went into the Black Hills, the next spring he would come out, his life and body would be renewed. So, to our grandfathers, the Black Hills was the center of life, and those areas all around it were considered sacred, and were kept in the light of reverence.”
The Lakotas and Kiowas recount the creation of the Tower by telling of a group of little girls playing in the Plains who ran as bears chased them. The Great Spirit had pity on them and made the earth beneath them rise into a large tower, protecting them from the bears as they tried to claw their way up, to no avail. Their claw marks are seen today as great columns on the sides of the mountain.
A Cheyenne warrior, Wooden Leg, once told a story of a man who fell asleep next to a buffalo head at the base of Bear Lodge. While asleep, he and the buffalo head were miraculously transported up the tower by the Great [Spirit] Medicine. When the man woke up, he feared he had no way down, so he prayed. When he woke up the next morning, the Great Spirit had transported him to the bottom of the tower, leaving the buffalo head at the top, where it has remained since then. Many important spiritual leaders have visited Bear Lodge, fasting, praying, and receiving visions and prophecies during their time there, including the Cheyenne Sweet Medicine, the Lakota Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse.
Northern Plains tribes hold Bear Lodge in great reverence by performing prayers and ceremonies nearby. Around the monument, signs are posted which read, “Please do not disturb prayer bundles and prayer cloths.” Native peoples leave prayer offerings near the surrounding trails. Traditionally, the Lakota held a Sun Dance at Bear Lodge at the time of the summer solstice. This dance focuses on symbolic sacrifice and renewal of man and nature and is sometimes still performed at Bear Lodge.
According to the Northern Plains Native American tribes, Devils Tower is much more than a national monument, unique geological formation, or great place to rock climb. To them, Bear Lodge represents a place to worship, pray, and receive spiritual experiences.