This remarkable natural formation, unfortunately, takes the prize for Worst-Named Holy Site. Devils Tower is a tower, certainly, but evil forces have nothing to do with it. Thanks to a clueless Army colonel who gave it the designation while passing through this part of northeast Wyoming in 1875, the formidable formation has borne a most unfortunate name. (To add insult to injury, its official name lacks an apostrophe, which grates on the nerves of my inner editor.)
And then there’s the tower’s starring role in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Director Steven Spielberg set the climax of his alien-encounter movie at Devils Tower. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember Richard Dreyfuss creating replicas of the formation out of mashed potatoes. Between Hollywood and that misguided Army colonel, it’s no wonder that people get the wrong impression of this landmark.
I’ve visited Devils Tower several times over the years, but it always surprises me when I see it appear on the horizon. Nearly 900 feet in height, the tower rises like a solitary sentinel above the gently rolling hills that surround the Black Hills. Formed from molten magma some 50 million years ago, the tower was gradually exposed as the rocks around it were eroded away. The fluted column is a rare geological phenomenon that draws scientists from around the world.
Many Native Americans value this landmark for another reason: its sacredness. About 20 Indian tribes claim some kind of cultural or religious connection to the tower. Most identify it with a bear, one of the most powerful totems. To the Lakota and Cheyenne, for example, it is Bear Lodge, while the Mandan call it Bear’s Hat and the Arapaho Bear’s Tipi. For many centuries it’s been a place for prayer, sweat lodges, offerings and ceremonies. Thus the “Devils Tower” moniker is particularly offensive to Indians, because this is actually a place of great holiness.
There are many legends that account for the landmark’s unusual appearance. A Kiowa story, for example, says that the tower was once a tree. One day seven sisters and their brother were playing near it when the boy began to growl, his fingers grew claws, and hair erupted all over his body. Soon he had been entirely transformed into a bear. The girls ran to the base of the tree, which told them to climb to the top of its branches. As they did so, the bear began to claw at the trunk, creating deep gashes in its sides. The seven sisters leaped into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper, while the tree hardened into stone, its sides still scored by the bear’s claws.
Theodore Roosevelt named Devils Tower the first National Monument in 1906, and since then a steady stream of people have visited the site. It takes about 45 minutes to walk around the base of the tower, a route that winds through pine forest and past jumbles of boulders and rocks that have fallen from its sides over the years. As you make the circuit, you’re likely to see climbers ascending the tower, looking like tiny spiders from far below. Each year about 5,000 people make their way to the top of the formation, which is considered one of the premiere technical climbs in North America.
Those climbers illustrate a continuing controversy at Devils Tower: the conflict between those who value the formation as a holy site and those who come here for recreation. That tension is part of many holy sites, but the issues are more visible at Devils Tower than most. Those climbers are not only visible and audible from below, but they also are putting spikes and other climbing equipment into rock that is considered sacred.
The National Parks Service has tried to ease the conflict by asking people to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many sacred ceremonies are held. While the number of climbers in June has dropped by about 85 percent since that voluntary policy was instituted, hard feelings remain on both sides. (To further complicate the issue, in legal proceedings some climbers have claimed that ascending the tower is for them a religious experience.)
To me, one month out of twelve doesn’t seem like too much to ask–-in fact, it reflects quite an imbalance between the two groups. Seeing those climbers on the side of Devils Tower, in fact, made me think of European cathedrals I’ve visited while tourists were traipsing through. Often they weren’t being deliberately disrespectful, but their very presence detracted from the atmosphere of reverence. On the other hand, I do think that sometimes one comes as a tourist to a holy place and a seed is planted that bears unexpected spiritual fruits, sometimes many years later. These controversies aren’t easily solved, at Devils Tower or elsewhere.
If you get the chance to visit this place, I think you will see why so many myths and legends swirl around it, why filmmakers are intrigued by it, and why it is considered sacred by many tribes. You may even have some sympathy for the climbers who dream of scaling it, for the challenge it presents is tantalizing indeed.
But really, I think the best way to see Devils Tower is with neck craned at its base, watching as raptors glide the air currents around it, marveling at its massive presence looming above. N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist, describes it best: ”There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”