Dispatches, June 1997
Andy Petefish is speaking his mind. And he doesn't much care that his words seem aggressively un-PC. "I'm a Euro-American," says Petefish, owner of Tower Guides, which leads visiting climbers up Wyoming's Devils Tower. "I don't want to understand Indian religion, and I don't have to."
Actually, that remains to be seen. Any day now, U.S. District Court Judge William F. Downes is expected to decide what the month of June holds for one of the nation's premier climbing venues. Either the 867-foot spire will be closed to commercial climbing or, if Petefish prevails in his suit against the National Park Service, the rock will be open for business. Of course, there's far more to it than that. Basically Downes must choose between the constitutional protection of religious freedom and the guarantee that separates the affairs of church and state; wherever he comes down, the impact of the case — and its effect on the ability of American Indians to defend their sacred lands — will be felt throughout the West.
The uproar at Devils Tower can be traced to 1995, when the Park Service instituted a plan that encouraged climbers to steer clear in June, thereby honoring the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other groups who celebrate the summer solstice at the base of the rock, which they believe is infused with sacred power. Last year, the agency went a step further, issuing a monthlong ban on guiding at the Tower — a move that was quickly countered by Petefish, a brash 37-year-old so obsessed with his cause that he claims he divorced his wife so as to focus exclusively on the case. Petefish convinced Downes to grant an injunction against the ban. Now he's back in court, hoping to win a permanent decision. "The whole notion of paying the Indians back through sympathy is idiotic," says Petefish. "All of these land issues were resolved a long time ago."
Ironically, most Devils Tower habitu‰s don't share such views. Last June, Tower Guides was the only commercial operation to actively oppose the ban, and all told only 181 climbers scaled the monolith, 86 percent fewer than in 1994. "Climbers know it's not in their best interests to just say 'screw the Indians,'" argues Sally Moser, executive director of the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group. "Isn't that what Petefish is saying?"
Perhaps that's not Petefish's exact intent, but if Downes upholds his initial ruling, he'll establish crucial precedent that could divest American Indians of their most potent preservation tool. "In the eighties," explains Jack Trope, attorney for a coalition of eight Plains tribes, "Indians sought to force the government's hand by saying, 'If you build a road here, you'll violate our freedom of religion.' That didn't work, so now we're trying to convince public agencies to voluntarily enact protection."
The approach seems to have been effective. In November, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service forbade New Mexico's Santa Fe Ski Basin from building a new lift on a mountain held sacred by the Tesuque Pueblo. Then, in February, the Forest Service honored the Washo tribe by enacting a ban against climbing at Cave Rock, a popular Lake Tahoeûarea spot. But if Petefish prevails this month, such decisions would be opened up to legal challenge — a result that many fellow climbers hope will not come to pass. "After all, we regard rocks in an almost spiritual way," says Tedd Stymiest, manager of Adventure Sport, which guides at Devils Tower and elsewhere. "We should be able to show compassion for another group that feels the same."
Illustration by Thomas Fluharty