Battle for the spirit of Devil's Tower

The Sioux's sacred monument is just another challenge to US climbers, reports David Usborne from Wyoming
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The Independent Online
Visit the Devil's Tower in the Black Hills of north-eastern Wyoming and you will instantly understand why for so long it has stirred the hearts of so many, from tourists to Theodore Roosevelt, who declared it the US's first national monument in 1906, and even Hollywood, which cast it as the alien landing strip in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This 1,200ft monolith, sheared off flat at its summit and encased from top to bottom in near-geometric columns, has provided special inspiration to two other groups: mountaineers flocking to "crack-climb" its vertical chasms, and American Indians, for whom it is not just a recreational wonder but an altar for religious worship.

This shared reverence for the monument has provoked a less-than-inspiring dispute over who should have access to it. It is a struggle that offers a glimpse not just of the US's addiction to measuring its every quarrel against the Constitution, but also of the depth of rancour that still exists between Indians and whites more than a century after the immigrants' violent conquest of the West.

Caught in the middle is the National Parks Service. This year it tried to implement a new management plan for the monument, designed to curb the mountaineers and give some belated satisfaction to the tribes who for years had been complaining that what they knew as the "Bear's Lodge" or Mato Tipi - Indian legend holds the rock to be a giant tree stump scored by the claws of a mighty bear - was being desecrated by climbers.

"It would be like someone going to England with their climbing equipment and proceeding to scale your great cathedrals on a Sunday," said Johnson Holy Rock, the 78-year-old former president of the Oglala Sioux. "The elders must tell our children that this is a sacred place, but when the children see the climbers it puts the elders in an untenable position."

The anger of the Indians is compounded by the location of the monument in the Black Hills. Spiritually significant to 20 different plains tribes, including the Lakota (western Sioux), Crow and Cheyenne, these lands were originally ceded to the Indians as part of a reservation, but were seized back by federal soldiers in 1875 following the discovery of gold.

The monument's chief of resources management, George San Miguel, attempted a compromise which virtually set aside the tower for Indians during June - around the important summer solstice - to allow them to practise their sundance ceremonies and erect sweat lodges (a kind of Indian sauna) at its base. During that month, all commercially-led climbing was to be outlawed, while a voluntary ban was to be imposed on all casual climbers. Moral support came from President Clinton, who signed an executive order in May instructing all US national parks to accommodate sacred sites within them.

This June, Indians came in scores. A sloping pasture to the west of the tower still bears testimony to their ceremonies: the grass lies flat in a wide circle where the worshippers danced for four days, a round of bare earth remains where a bonfire burned, while white prayer-cloths still hang in nearby ponderosa trees. Today, however, the Park Service plan and the renewed pride of the Indians are in jeopardy, thanks to a vigorous lawsuit being pursued by Andy Petefish, whose commercial climbing business, Tower Guide, is based outside the monument's entrance. He accuses the Park Service of violating his freedom of choice as guaranteed by the Constitution. The case, which will come to trial in a Wyoming district court later this year, could offer a model for the future management of sacred sites across the US.

"White guilt is fine until it's your backyard the Indians come to," Mr Petefish explained. "Not one goddamned person is stopping them going into the park and practising their religion. But I'm not going to stop climbing, because the Constitution says I don't have to."

Nor is he impressed by Indian arguments concerning their religious attachment to the tower. "It is not a church. Churches are made by man," he said, adding that for him climbing also is religious. "To me climbing is a spiritual activity. There is nothing recreational about it."

Mr Petefish, who is supported by a conservative group called the Mountain States Legal Foundation, has already scored a first victory. In mid-June, a Wyoming judge issued an injunction against the ban on commercial climbing, arguing that it was indeed a violation of the Constitution and amounted to illegal involvement of the government in religious affairs.

The judge's preliminary decision has bewildered Mr San Miguel, meanwhile. "There is no conspiracy here, and we are not trying to end climbing and nor are we in the pockets of the American Indians. We are just trying to make a reasonable attempt to take account of Indian sensitivities."

Still more disgusted is Mr Holy Rock. He argues that the Indians were on this land before the whites and before the Constitution was drafted: "We didn't participate in the formulation of the Constitution. Our view is based on a situation that existed prior to the Declaration of Independence."

He insists, however, that he remains optimistic that Mr Petefish can be thwarted and that, in time, the Indians will have full control of the monument. With a weary sigh, Mr Holy Rock ventures: "I pray to the Great Spirit that he will give the whites the opportunity to see this thing through our eyes."