The Legend of Devils Tower
Indian Country Today
Devils Tower, also known as Mato Tipila, which means “Bear Lodge” in Lakota, is a volcanic neck that rises 1,267 feet from the Black Hills in northeastern Wyoming. It was the very first national monument in the United States, bestowed that designation by Teddy Roosevelt on September 24th, 1906. In recent years around one percent of the 400,000 annual visitors actually climbs the tower. We’ll get to how you do that in a later article.
Long before the tower was being recognized by the American government, Native tribes had geographical and cultural connections to it. They called it everything from ‘Aloft on a Rock’ (Kiowa) to ‘Grizzly Bear Lodge’ (Lakota). It wasn’t given its demonic name until Col. Richard Irving Dodge led an expedition through Wyoming in 1875. His interpreter botched the translation, calling it ‘Bad God’s Tower’, which was eventually shortened to Devils Tower.
There are two great legends regarding the tower and the unusual looking columns that bear a striking resemblance to claw marks. It’s no surprise that both the stories, from the Lakota Sioux and the Kiowa, involve a similar narrative. In the Lakota Sioux legend, six girls were out picking flowers when they were attacked and chased by bears. The Great Spirit felt bad for them, and raised the ground beneath their feet. The bears gave chase and attempted to climb the newly formed tower, but they couldn’t get to the top. The bears fell off, clawing the sides of the monolith.
The Kiowa legend follows a similar storyline but includes astrology as well. Seven little Kiowa girls were out playing, spotted by several giant bears, and were chased. The girls prayed to the Great Spirit, and sure enough the ground rose beneath them towards the Heavens. The bears tried to climb the rock but only managed to leave their deep claw marks on the sides. The girls reached the sky and were turned into the constellation Pleiades.
This story was originally published December 15, 2010.