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2017-06-15 / Voices

Respect For Sacred Sites - But Not In Indian Country


Standing like a monolithic sentinel of the Northern Plains Indigenous cultures Devil’s Tower has been a sacred site of the Lakota, Kiowa, Cheyenne and others for millennia.

Some non-Native historians may dispute that. Non-Native geologists will at least lend credence to the butte’s ancient ties by placing its origin at the 40 million-year mark.

But the opinion of outsiders – pro or con - really doesn’t matter when it comes to belief in one’s spirituality…or one’s religion.

Walk into a Catholic, Presbyterian or Methodist church and announce that Christ didn’t walk the Earth 2000 years ago or, better yet, throw grappling hooks on one of these church’s roofs and start climbing its exterior walls because you always wanted to see the view from its steeple and you may cause an theological riot.

Not so the oral traditions of this nation’s First People which are continually questioned, mocked and dismantled by followers of a religion based on “verbatim” teachings recorded up to 100 years after the death of its primary prophet.

Consider that these same individuals will staunchly defend the authenticity and veracity of those teachings while criticizing the vagaries of scientific study and the one-sidedness of “religious freedom” in this country is readily seen.

Anyone who questions this reality need only refer to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, created to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of this nation’s Indigenous populations.

The fact that such a law was necessary 187 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified is indicative of just how limited certain freedoms are in this country – and for whom.

Nor would you witness a federally orchestrated agreement involving a non-Native religious location in this country permitting individuals who aren’t members of that religion to occupy its grounds or buildings solely for recreational purposes because the location was considered a “world class site” for whatever activities the public-at-large chose to christen it.

But such is the case at Devil’s Tower – which isn’t the site’s traditional Native American name since the “devil” is an entity that doesn’t exist in their collective cultures.

And though the oral traditions surrounding the place the Lakota call Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge) may vary with each tribe: the site where a tree stump rose to the sky to carry seven sisters away from an attacking bear; the area where White Buffalo Calf Woman gave her people the sacred pipe…it’s understood by all as a place where spiritual energy exists and where unusual events may occur.

Still, every year thousands of people from around the world are permitted to climb Mato Tipila for their enjoyment of the sport.

After much prodding and protesting against the activity a voluntary climbing closure was agreed to in 1995 by a working group of representatives from Native American tribes and climbing organizations.

The National Park Service considered it a way to balance the cultural and spiritual importance of the site to Native Americans with the butte’s history as a unique and world class rock climbing destination. Climbers are “strongly encouraged” not to scale Devil’s Tower during June - when a variety of ceremonies are taking place there.

Strongly encouraged. Yet, not everyone listens – as evidenced by the climber who fell to his death just 2 weeks ago. A tragedy, of course. But a choice that he made and now an incident that everyone associated with the site at this especially spiritual time must absorb and somehow live with.

Those who believe in a higher being will understand my reaction on first hearing the news: This is a serious place. This is a serious time for those who hold ceremonies there. It’s a time for complete respect by everyone whether they believe or not.

Yet Mato Tipila is not my sacred site, so it wasn’t my place to comment publicly. But within days a Lakota elder shared similar words with me. And he saw the tragedy as a message.

If only the tribes could receive the same respect for their spiritual beliefs as the peregrine falcons receive for their nests. A strictly enforceable climbing ban was announced for part of Devil’s Tower this month that protects these wingeds from the intrusion of climbers - until further notice.

“Look at the birds of the air…are you not much more valuable than they?” reads Christ’s quote.

Look at the tribes of the land…are their rights not the same as the falcons?

Just how much of that Bible – or Constitution - do you actually follow?

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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