An American Indian spiritual leader has requested the federal government change the name of Devils Tower to Bear Lodge.
In his request to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, described in a biography by the publisher of his books as a spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Great Sioux Nation, said the name “Devils Tower” is a white man’s mistranslation of the words “Bad God’s Tower.”
It is offensive “because it equates cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to ‘devil worship,’ in essence equating indigenous people to ‘devils,’” the name change proposal states.
If the name were to change -- which could happen in early 2016, after public opinion is gathered at the local, state and federal levels -- it would only apply to the geographic rock and the nearby community, both called Devils Tower. The name of the national monument could only be changed by Congress or a presidential executive order, said Tim Reid, superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument.
The National Park Service doesn’t have a position on the name, Reid said.
At the state and local levels, many people oppose it.
“The general consensus amongst the local citizens so far has been in opposition to the name change mostly due to economic factors,” said Devin Traff, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names. “There has been some support for the name change. Most of that have come from individuals who have written in to me.”
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, has a family ranch at the base of the tower.
“I’m very strongly opposed to it,” he said. ”It makes no sense from a number of reasons.”
The name change proposal says Bear Lodge is a correct translation of an indigenous name for the tower. Most American Indian stories talk about a bear using its claws to score the tower’s sides.
White settlers, military officers and cartographers also used Bear Lodge frequently in historical documents.
“It is never too late to correct a mistake, especially an offensive name used at someone’s sacred site,” the proposal states.
Looking Horse’s request was submitted Nov. 20. The Star-Tribune tried contacting Looking Horse through a woman who submitted the proposal on his behalf. She did not reply to the message.
The country's first national monument was created in 1906 with the name Devils Tower.
For years, tribes have wanted to change the name. Now is the first time they have been in agreement on a proposal, said Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe announced support of the proposal through letters to federal officials in December, according to the National Park Service.
The Casper Star-Tribune tried contacting an official with the Ogala tribe in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The message was not returned. Nor were messages returned from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
It’s unclear how the two tribes who occupy the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming feel about the name. Representatives of the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes did not return messages.
Driskill, the state senator whose family has lived in the area 50 years, said the name Devils Tower was never meant to be offensive.
In 1875, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, an American Indian scout, traveled through Wyoming’s Black Hills, said Driskill. He said he has read Dodge’s journals.
“They told him it was where the evil spirits lived, it was a bad place,” he said. “Undoubtedly sacred to them, but sacred as hell would be to someone who goes to church.”
Driskill said he took the journals to the U.S. Park Service, but hasn’t been able to change officials' conceptions that Dodge was inaccurate or ignorant.
“If they want to find something offensive, they ought to look at Custer, South Dakota,” he said. “Custer obviously had a problem with the Sioux, and I’ve heard nothing about renaming of Custer, South Dakota.”
Army Lt. Col. George Custer fought in the American Indian Wars, culminating with the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana against Lakota Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne where he was killed.
Driskill and Crook County Commission Chairman Kelly Dennis said Bear Lodge is a name used for other geographic features in northeastern Wyoming. Renaming Devils Tower would cause confusion.
A local mountain range is called Bear Lodge, as is the area’s ranger district for the Black Hills National Forest. There is a ranch called Bear Lodge and a resort in the Big Horn Mountains.
Dennis said he hasn’t read the comments submitted to the commission yet, but he suspects most will oppose a change.
Many local residents marked key events in their lives at the monument, such as weddings, which has had the name Devils Tower for nearly 110 years, he said.
The county commission will read all comments submitted to them before making a recommendation. It will send all comments to the state, Dennis said.
Traff, of the Wyoming Geographic Names Board, said the Wyoming Office of Tourism has said it wants the name to remain Devils Tower.
“Their concern with the name change would be the loss of brand equity and economic considerations for placing signs and pamphlets and brochures -- everything that goes with tourism at Devils Tower,” he said.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock.
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