In the sparsely populated northeast corner of Wyoming, a massive pinnacle of stone explodes, for no apparent reason, out of the prairie. The name that the monolith was officially designated when Theodore Roosevelt made it America’s first national monument in 1906 is Devils Tower. But for thousands of rock climbers who flock to it each year, there are few things as heavenly. For nearly two decades I’ve traveled all over the world to climb, and I’ve never seen a feature quite as captivating. Its pull is almost irresistible.
Climbers aren’t the only ones who revere the Tower. American Indians have been drawn to it for upwards of 10,000 years. For the Crow people, it is the place where a rock rose beneath two sisters, delivering them safely from the attack of an enormous bear. According to the Kiowa, it was seven sisters, and the rock that grew beneath them was actually a tree stump. The Lakota Sioux call the Tower Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge), and claim it is where Hu Nump (The Great Bear) imparted language and healing ceremonies to the human race. There are many different sacred narratives surrounding the peculiar hunk of stone. But whether you’re talking to a Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Crow, Shoshone, Arikara, or at least 14 other tribes of American Indians, one commonality emerges: the Tower is incomparably sacred.
When two ranchers—Bill Rogers and Willard Ripley—completed the first recorded ascent of Devils Tower in June 1893, it is likely they didn’t have the faintest clue what the formation meant to Native Americans. It’s equally likely, given that the treatment of the Lakota by Americans at that time was characterized by broken treaties and forced starvation, that they wouldn’t have cared. Finally, it is almost certain that Rogers and Ripley would have been flabbergasted to learn that in 1994, a little over 100 years after their ascent, 1,225 people from all over the world would climb the Tower in the month of June alone.
In 1992, spurred by the recent boom in climbing’s popularity, the National Park Service began drafting a climbing management plan for Devils Tower. One of the things that plan attempted to address was the question of what to do about climbing in June. With long days and relatively stable weather, June is an excellent time to climb the Tower. But it is also an especially sacred time for the nearby tribes. After three years of public comment periods, focus groups, and planning sessions with Native Americans, the Sierra Club, and the Access Fund, the Park Service released its final climbing management plan (FCMP) in 1995.
Among other things, the FCMP detailed a one-month voluntary climbing closure, the first and still only closure of that kind in the U.S. “The voluntary closure will be fully successful when every climber personally chooses not to climb at Devils Tower during June out of respect for American Indian cultural values,” the FCMP stated. In the first year of the plan’s implementation, it looked like that goal might be attainable. In 1995, only 167 registered climbers were tallied—an 86.4 percent reduction from the year before.
The plan’s initial success was short-lived. One of the key elements of the 1995 FCMP was that the June shutdown would be mandatory for commercial rock climbing guides. But in November 1996, the Mountain States Legal Foundation helped several climbing guides file a lawsuit against the superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, the National Park Service, and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, claiming that the ban was implemented for religious reasons, and hence violated the first amendment. Before the court was able to come to a conclusion, the Park Service preemptively revised the FCMP to make the June closure voluntary for all users, including guide services. The courts ultimately upheld the FCMP, but by that time it was a moot point. One year later, the Park Service conducted an ethnographic study that recommended that climbing on the Tower should be prohibited altogether; but no change to the FCMP was made.
Over the next decade, the number of June climbers on the monument oscillated between the high-200s and mid-300s. By 2013, that number ballooned to 434. This year, there were 279. It’s clear that 23 years after the FCMP’s implementation, the monument is still far from achieving the voluntary ban’s initial goal.
“The plan will be successful if we get to zero,” says Tim Reid, the previous superintendent of Devils Tower. “But if that doesn’t happen it’s not the end of the world.” Reid was adamant that, considering where we were in 1994, the voluntary closure has been a resounding success. “If the goal of zero climbers in June is not achieved, several other options can be taken,” Reid said. “You can revise the FCMP. You can write a new definition of success.”
It’s hard for me to see how “writing a new definition of success” would be anything other than the latest in a long line of broken treaties with Native American tribes. But Reid advised me not to think of the ban as a zero-sum game. “We want climbers to understand the reasons not to climb, and to make the decision on their own,” he told me. “That was one of the desires of the American Indians involved.”
But not all Native Americans were, or are, in favor of the ban being voluntary. “It’s disrespectful,” Waylon Black Crow Sr. told Krista Langlois in a recent article for Outside. “It would be like climbing a big old cross. They wouldn’t climb that.” Trina Lonehill, the cultural liaison of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, shared Black Crow’s sentiments, and felt that the ban should be mandatory. “You don’t disturb a sacred space,” she told me. “You have respect for it. To respect it is not to disturb it.”
The Pine Ridge Reservation, where Lonehill lives, is the poorest county in the United States, with rampant alcoholism, a meth epidemic, and underfunded schools and hospitals. Frank Sanders, a prominent guide on Devils Tower and one of the founders of the nonprofit, Devils Tower: Sacred To Many People, cites the state of the Pine Ridge Reservation as evidence that there are bigger local problems to be concerned with than climbing in June. “I could hand out coats, stand on my head, and not climb for a month,” he told me recently as we watched the sunset light up the Tower from the deck of his lodge. “I don’t think but one of those things would have much effect.”
Of course, donating goods and not climbing on the Tower in June, are by no means mutually exclusive. Sanders has done more for the Pine Ridge Reservation (in 2008 he raised $10,000 for the Porcupine Clinic by climbing the Tower for 365 days in a row) than most people will ever do. But I don’t believe that gives him a free pass to do something that many Native Americans find offensive. And while Sanders has assured me that he “has met no resistance among the res about whether or not I climb in June,” that view dismisses the feelings of people like Black Crow Sr. and Lonehill.
While the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation are one of the most disenfranchised groups in the U.S., climbers have got to be one of the most privileged. They can afford to buy thousands of dollars of equipment and travel far and wide to engage in a sport that introduces them to heightened risk of injury or death. That is telling. This is a case of those who have much being asked for something that amounts to a nominal inconvenience by those who have little. How can it be so hard to comply?
As I walked around the Tower a few weeks ago, I noticed a plethora of signs warning climbers of a closure for nesting prairie and peregrine falcons. The falcon closure, of course, is mandatory. If they made it voluntary, the birds wouldn’t stand a chance. Between the hordes of tourists, buzzing drones, and motorcycles and RVs groaning along on the road below, it was so noisy that I barely heard the peregrine’s telltale scream come shrilly down through the pine boughs above.
What I did not see on my walk around the Tower loop was a single sign that mentioned the voluntary closure out of respect for Native Americans. Nor did I see any Native Americans carrying out spiritual ceremonies. The only hint that they had been there at all was the occasional prayer bundle tucked away in inconspicuous corners, like an afterthought.