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Devils Tower, Sacred Space

ISSUE:  Winter 2013

When I first climbed Devils Tower, the iconic 1,267-foot volcanic plug in northeastern Wyoming, it was 1976. I was with a rowdy group of high-school athletes. We were state-champion swimmers, exceedingly fit, fearless, and full of fun. The night before the big ascent, we camped in the Devils Tower campground, ate hotdogs around the campfire, and engaged in typical adolescent hijinks—yelling, laughing, chasing each other in the moonlight.

To us, Devils Tower was just a big rock. We’d learned in geography that it had formed 50 to 60 million years ago, when bubbling magma pushed up through layers of sedimentary stone cooled slowly—which caused its vertical columnar fracturing—and was later excavated by wind and water. It was inanimate, an objective. 

After a night of running around, in the morning we roped up and began climbing the easiest route. Beneath a hot, cobalt-blue sky, lacking any refinement whatsoever, shouting encouragement to one another, we gleefully muscled our way to the top. 

As we rappelled from the summit, helicopters with cameramen hanging out were buzzing around the Tower. Far below we could see movie sets and crowds of extras. Steven Spielberg was filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a sci-fi thriller starring Richard Dreyfuss. 

Typical Hollywood: The plot is lame. Dreyfuss portrays Roy Neary, an ordinary dad who has a close encounter with UFOs and is subsequently driven bonkers by an inexplicable idée fixe. He begins mindlessly shaping steep-sided, mountain-like forms out of shaving cream and mashed potatoes, eventually sculpting a Devils Tower of mud in the middle of his living room. Via a tv-news bulletin about a dangerous gas that has exploded at Devils Tower, the absurd subplot is revealed: The government knows UFOs may be landing at the Tower and it is therefore trying to clear the area of locals. Neary recognizes what has telepathically possessed him and madly races the family station wagon right up to the base of Devils Tower, busts through the military blockades, and is triumphantly taken in by little aliens. 

Naturally, we all went to the movie together as soon as it came out, ridiculously hoping to see ourselves hanging off the Tower in one of the shots. Climbing the Tower had been a grand little adventure, nothing more. Grounded in Judeo-Christian hegemony, we were the latest heirs of Manifest Destiny, informed more through Hollywood than history. We came, we camped, we climbed. 

I returned to Devils Tower last summer, not to climb, but to witness the Sacred Hoop Run. 

Prior to the arrival of colonists, the Lakota, Shoshone, Kiowa, Crow, and Cheyenne native tribes all worshipped at Devils Tower, a place the Lakota call Mato Tipila, “Bears Lodge.” Archeologists have found evidence that Native Americans have been living in the vicinity for at least 10,000 years. 

“What most people don’t understand,” explains Ricky Gray Grass, a forty-year-old medicine man from Pine Ridge, “is that Mato Tipila is sacred to the Lakota. We have always come here to pray for wisdom and guidance.” Gray Grass, heavy, with a big head and steady eyes, is sitting with me in the dark around a campfire in the Devils Tower campground, just as I had thirty-five years earlier. “Mato Tipila is a temple, as sacred to us as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is to the Jews, or Mecca is to Muslims.”

Gray Grass and more than a hundred First Peoples, many of them teenagers, are here to participate in the twenty-ninth running of the Sacred Hoop. The teenagers are in high spirits, playing and shouting, having temporarily escaped the squalor and horror of “The Rez”—places like Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and others.

Living conditions on many reservations in the United States are as incomprehensible as those in the developing world. Unemployment on reservations varies from 35 to 85 percent; approximately 40 percent of the children live in poverty; the high-school dropout rate is 30–70 percent. Nearly one-quarter of Native Americans experience food shortages, and 40 percent live in inadequate housing. Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and most distressing of all, suicide rates for ages fifteen to twenty-four are three times the national average. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth.

“Too many of our young people have no one to turn to,” says Gray Grass, standing beside the flames, his wide, pocked face gleaming in the firelight. “There is no one to say ‘I love you, you can talk to me, I’ll listen.’ That’s why the Sacred Hoop Run was started.” 

The Sacred Hoop Run is a five-day, 500-mile relay run based on a myth about how the Lakota first came to the Black Hills. In the story, it is said that all the creatures of the plains gathered together to decide whether to allow the two-legged animals into their homeland. The winged creatures were for it, and the four-legged creatures were against it. To settle the matter, they raced in a big loop, or hoop, through the Black Hills. The first time the four-legged won, the second time the winged won, and the third time a magpie rode on the back of a buffalo, and they won. Thereafter, all the creatures gave their blessing for the two-legged Lakota to enter the Black Hills.

In the first treaty with the Plains Indians, signed in 1851 at Fort Laramie, the Indians agreed to stop attacking the encroaching emigrants as well as each other, in exchange for a chunk of land almost the size of modern-day Wyoming. Neither side lived up to the deal. In the second Fort Laramie treaty, in 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation was created. The Plains Indians were guaranteed all of the country west of the Missouri in present-day South Dakota to the Powder River in Wyoming, and all of the land south of the Missouri in Montana down to the North Platte in Nebraska. Mato Tipila and the Black Hills, the Plains Indians’ two most sacred places, lay at the heart of this region. By law, this sovereign nation was “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians” and could not be entered by whites. 

Six years later, in 1874, this deal was breached, too. On rumors of gold, US General George Custer, with 1,000 men, 110 wagons, and a sixteen-piece military band, invaded the Black Hills. Gold was indeed discovered, and in 1877 the third treaty (signed by only 10 percent of the adult male Sioux population) stripped the First Peoples of all land except for a chunk in South Dakota between the Missouri and the Black Hills. Under the newest treaty, the Hills themselves, as well as Mato Tipila, were now government property.

It was during this time, in the midst of the Sioux Wars, that the great chiefs of the Plains Indians—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Gall, and Spotted Tail—having already lost almost all their land, came to their earthborn temple, Mato Tipila, to fast and pray for the survival of their people. 

A congressional act in 1889 cut the last contiguous portion of Indian land in half again, creating tiny, fragmented, and ultimately unsustainable reservations. The conquest was complete. The heads of great white leaders were carved into the Black Hills at a place they had renamed Mount Rushmore, and Mato Tipila was renamed Devils Tower.

Gary Lays Bad, a big-muscled man with long, black braids, steps into the firelight. His father was a founder of the Hoop Run.

“By retracing a sacred story, this run is about giving the youth their identity back,” states Lays Bad. He moves and speaks slowly but with great intention. He fears that Native-American youth are not only losing their culture, but their language, their history, even their native spirituality. The Sacred Hoop Run was started in 1983 to reverse this ethnocidal trend and has continued on Father’s Day ever since. Each night, after the run, the elders sit around the campfire and tell stories of Lakota life to the young runners. Each morning they start the day with an ancient prayer.

I stand beside the campfire with them and try to imagine what it must feel like to have a spiritual connection to the Tower that extends back hundreds of generations. One of the runners, a lithe, attractive twenty-two-year-old, is rocking her one-year-old son beside me. Her name is Samantha Pond, and this is her third year participating in the Sacred Hoop Run. I ask her why she does it.

“Because our children need a lot of help, they need guidance,” she says earnestly. 

I question her about the Lakota traditions she is learning, expecting her to tell me an ancient fable, but instead she says, “The biggest thing I’ve learned this year is compassion. If you pay close attention to the people around you, you can see when they need help and you can reach out and help them. We are all connected in more ways than we know.”

Devils Tower was designated a 1,300-acre national monument—the country’s first—by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. The act protected this singular physiographic feature, a lighthouse of stone that rises more than a thousand feet above an ocean of prairie, from commercial and mining interests.

The Tower was first “climbed” thirteen years earlier, in 1893, by two enterprising Wyoming cowboys, William Rogers and Willard Ripley. The handbill for the event declared that there would be “plenty to eat and drink,” hay and grain for the horses, and “dancing day and night.” Over the course of the previous month, Rogers and Ripley had driven two-foot wooden pegs into a crack on the south face, constructing a 350-foot ladder. On July 4, to the roar of more than a thousand picnicking ranchers and farmers, Rogers climbed the ladder to the top in one hour and planted the American flag. 

It is not recorded whether any Native Americans were present to witness this.

It took three-quarters of a century before Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in 1978. AIRFA acknowledged previous infringements on the rights of Native Americans to practice their religions and visit their sacred sites, stating that “it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions.”

Many Native American rituals—the vision quest, sweat lodge, sun dance, pipe ceremony, and other tribal and personal rites—are performed around the summer solstice, and hundreds of Native Americans make a pilgrimage to Devils Tower every year at this time. In deference to this tradition, in 1995 the National Park Service instituted a voluntary ban on rock climbing in the month of June. According to Dorothy FireCloud, a Lakota Sioux and the first Native American superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, compliance with the voluntary ban has been exceptional. “Over 80 percent of climbers choose to climb in some month other than June.”

Devils Tower

In the morning the runners and their extended families gather in a circle in a meadow below Mato Tipila, near the skeleton of an old sweat lodge. The Tower sweeps up behind them like a cathedral, immense and immutable. There is deep sadness, like a dark fog, hanging over the group; during the night they learned that another girl from the reservation killed herself. She was fourteen years old.

Burning sage is brought before each person, and one by one they “smudge” themselves, pulling the smoke over their bodies as if it were flowing water. This act is meant to cleanse the soul and reattach it to Mother Earth. 

It is the last day of the Sacred Hoop Run, and the athletes are itchy to leave Devils Tower and finish their run through the Black Hills. But the elders know there is time enough in life and are unhurried. 

Sioux medicine man Ricky Gray Grass is calm and dignified. He understands himself as the current steward of an ancient ceremony. He stands very still in the middle of the circle and speaks first in Lakota, then in English, his voice flowing over the tall, dew-wet grass. He tells his runners not to forget who they are, not to forget the history of their forefathers, not to forget their connection to the land. 

Finally, he points up at Mato Tipila, raises his arms, bows his head, and says a prayer for the survival of his people.

Standing at a distance, I am reminded of the Tibetan pilgrims circling Kawa Karpo, the highest mountain in China’s Yunnan Province. They raise their arms in praise, then prostrate themselves, then step forward only the distance of their own bodies. I think of the Australian aborigines who believe the spirits of their ancestors live beneath the humped red rock Uluru. I recall the Greenland Inuktitut’s myths of the icy Arctic Ocean.

What is it about places like this that attract us? All of us—Native Americans and high-schoolers and movie crews? 

Humans come from the earth. Evolutionarily, we are of rock and water and air. It is no surprise, then, that we are drawn to certain physical places on the planet. The magneticism is elemental. Our ancestors lived outside, bore the sun and snow, and found the divine in physiography. Beneath the plastic and petroleum, beneath the money, beneath the blare and banality of the modern world, resides a genetic connection to the physical world. 


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