DEVILS TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT -- Chief Arvol Looking Horse travels here, to this formation of igneous rock that juts nearly 900 feet into the sky, to pray.
He prays for peace and harmony. He prays for people to reverse their mistreatment against Mother Earth. He prays for future generations.
But before the spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Great Sioux Nation can focus on prayer, he must first pass through the national monument’s entrance gate, where park rangers welcome him to Devils Tower. They offer him a map of Devils Tower. In the car he glances at signs pointing to Devils Tower.
That name is offensive, the chief says, and invokes anxiety and anger among American Indians who consider the site sacred. It can interfere with their ceremonies and praying. People need to pray with a good heart and mind -- free of drugs and alcohol, with purity, holiness, reverence, respect and no ill will against others, he says.
He is leading the effort, backed by spiritual leaders of 20 tribes and two interfaith groups, to change the name of Devils Tower to Bear Lodge, a place where Sioux have prayed and gathered for spiritual ceremonies for 19 generations, and where other tribes worshipped before them.
Devils Tower is not the name any of the tribes use for the area, he says. There is no equivalent concept in Sioux spirituality of the Christian devil. A tribal resolution in support of the change argues the Devils Tower moniker “equates cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to ‘devil worship,’ in essence equating indigenous people to ‘devils.’”
“It almost gives me an anxiety attack,” says the chief, who is tall and thin, ties his long hair in a ponytail and answers questions by sharing the teachings of his people. “All the people who come here don’t know the energy of the sacred site. I pray people have enough respect to just come here with a good mind.”
Although tribes have petitioned the government to change the name since the 1920s, it is now urgent: Sioux prophecies of environmental destruction are coming to fruition, he says.
“This is a very important time in our history,” says the chief, who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
He is calling for his people to return to sacred sites, including the tower, to pray. The current name of the tower does not reflect its sacredness and makes it hard for people to visit. It must be changed, he says.
But many in Wyoming say the name change is impractical. Not far from Devils Tower, there are mountains and an area of national forest named Bear Lodge. Changing the name will create confusion and even lead to fewer tourists to the state, they argue.
“Over several decades of trying to build the Wyoming brand, we don’t want to get that taken away,” says Chris Mickey, spokesman for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “We’ve worked so hard to build it up to the point where we are now, the amount of tourism we have and the spending, we are at a record high for visitors and for visitor spending and local and state tax gatherings as well."
Chief Looking Horse has submitted two requests for name changes.
He wrote a letter to President Barack Obama to change the name of the national monument, which would require a presidential executive order or an act of Congress. He has also asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename the geographic rock and the nearby community, both called Devils Tower.
In early 2016, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, comprised of federal employees who mostly live in the Washington, D.C., area, will decide whether to change the name, based on the tribes’ arguments and recommendations from the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names, which is meeting Nov. 19 to make its decision, based on public opinion, including the opinions of people in Crook County.
The chief thinks the Sioux have a strong case. Tribal documents argue the U.S. board has a policy prohibiting words considered derogatory to any racial, ethnic or religious group. The board is authorized to change a name if it’s based on incorrect information.
The Devils Tower name originated with U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, who wrote in journals he got the name in 1875 from an Indian scout. The tribes argue Dodge was incorrect.
The tribes have agreed to the name of Bear Lodge using English words because they speak different languages, the chief says. All the tribes have different creation stories about the site that involve a bear.
Chief Looking Horse is not interested in delisting America’s first national monument or shooing away non-Indians from visiting the tower.
“I think we can all work together,” he says. “But respect us, too, you know?”
The tribes have amassed historical documents and other evidence to support their case. They note names of several national monuments have changed, such as Denali National Park in Alaska, which used to be called Mount McKinley National Park. There isn’t a documented case of decreased tourism or economic impact due to a name change, according to the tribes' materials.
Chris Mickey, of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, says he hasn’t seen the tribes’ data to comment. But there is a concern there will be fewer tourists if Devils Tower gets renamed, he says.
Foreign tourists who don’t know much English often plan their vacations by first seeing Wyoming’s iconic images -- the Grand Tetons or the tower, for instance -- and then learn their English names. If the tower were to be renamed Bear Lodge, tourists may become confused and not visit, Mickey says.
State Sen. Ogden Driskill has a family ranch and a campground, shops and a restaurant at the base of the tower. His family were the first settlers to the area, arriving 140 years ago from Austin, Texas.
While Chief Looking Horse says 19 generations of Sioux have prayed at the site, the Driskill family also has an oral and written tradition that suggests American Indians avoided the area, Driskill says.
He cites the writings of Dodge, the Army colonel who visited the area in 1875. Dodge wrote that the tribes stayed away from the tower because they believed evil spirits occupied the area.
“The Indians call this shaft ‘The Bad God’s Tower,’ a name adapted, with proper modification by our surveyors,” one of Dodge’s books reads, explaining how the name became Devils Tower.
The tribes have argued in documents to the government that Dodge was wrong and his interpreter possibly mistranslated.
But Driskill believes Dodge was correct. Dodge loved the American Indians and his journals meticulously described their ceremonies and lives. He respected their way of life, says Driskill, who is friendly with Chief Looking Horse.
He thinks it’s a leap in logic to associate American Indians with Satan based on the name, and Christian groups have not objected to it, he says.
“No one jumps to, ‘This is a bad place,’ or, ‘It’s where the devil lives,’” he says.
Driskill points to a number of maps that call the area Devils Tower. The Sioux, too, have maps from the 1800s that they've posted to a website, bearlodge.us, in which the area was called Bear Lodge.
While the spiritual leaders of 20 tribes -- including the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho in Wyoming -- have signed on to the name change proposal, Driskill says a spiritual leader is not the same as tribal political leadership, which should be the group requesting the name change.
Driskill plans to fly to Washington, D.C., to attend the U.S. board’s meeting on Devils Tower next year.
“I will tell you this area is sacred to me,” he says.
Chief Looking Horse’s title is 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Bundle, which contains an ancient sacred pipe. The tribes believe the pipe came from the Great Spirit, he says.
A long time ago, a spirit-woman known as the White Buffalo Calf Woman visited the Earth as people were starving and sick, having fallen astray from living in peace and harmony, the chief says. The White Buffalo Calf Woman presented the pipe at Devils Tower and showed people how to pray using the pipe. She taught them how to perform ceremonies and sacred rites such as marriage.
The 18th bundle keeper was the chief’s grandmother, who died in 1966. On her deathbed, she named him as the next bundle keeper and warned that if people don’t improve their ways, her grandson would be the last bundle keeper.
His grandmother’s warning coincides with a Sioux a prophecy for the world, he says.
“The White Buffalo Calf Woman says 19 generations ago, someday when people abuse Mother Earth and all the living things, there is to be a time when the white animal is about to show its sacred color,” he says.
The first white buffalo calf was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1994. It is the sign man has gone too far, the chief says.
“What we are faced with in the world today, in this global community, is the earth changes, the climate changes,” he says. “That‘s what the prophecies were all about.”
Chief Looking Horse says people can change course by praying. He’s not in the conversion business -- he considers himself a man of prayer who cares for the scared pipe -- but is calling on all people to gather at their sacred sites, such as in churches, synagogues or mosques, to worship in their traditional ways.
For the Sioux, Devils Tower is one of the sacred sites.
“We are at a crossroads,” he says. “… How many people are going to die before we acknowledge Spirit?”