CHEYENNE, Wyo. – When President Theodore Roosevelt designated the country’s first national monument 110 years ago, the proclamation inadvertently left out a punctuation mark, and what was supposed to be Devil’s Tower became Devils Tower instead.
Some say that’s not all it got wrong.
According to local American Indians and others, the landmark’s name was based on an incorrect translation and is offensive given the tower’s religious significance.
“It hurts us to think about such a beautiful, sacred place called Devils Tower,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Great Sioux Nation.
Looking Horse has petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of the huge rock butte to Bear Lodge, and has asked the Obama administration to rename the site Bear Lodge National Monument.
Other locals oppose changing the name, saying it’s unnecessary and would cause confusion and hurt tourism.
“The truth is, the vast majority of all of the public worldwide recognize it as a landmark, as Devils Tower; they don’t see it as an evil thing, as a bad thing,” local rancher Ogden Driskill said.
Supporters hope President Barack Obama will change the name during his administration’s final months. Obama has used his administration’s executive authority to unilaterally rename other geologic features – most notably changing Mount McKinley to Denali in Alaska – and create new national monuments.
Opponents are relying on the state’s Republican congressional delegation to continue at least blocking Congress from renaming the monument and the Board on Geographic Names from moving to rename the tower and the nearby community of Devils Tower, which consists of a post office, tourist shops and a campground.
The tower can be seen for miles, standing out like a giant tree stump among surrounding hills. It rises about 865 feet from its rocky base to its relatively flat top, which is about the size of a football field. By comparison, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is 555 feet tall.
Roosevelt designated the monument using powers granted to him in the 1906 Antiquities Act. The monument is maintained by the National Park Service, and it has become popular with rock climbers.
Depicted in the 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Devils Tower attracted about 480,000 visitors last year. Among them were American Indians who regularly hold religious services there.
The landmark is a sacred site to at least 26 affiliated tribes, said Tim Reid, monument superintendent.
Many religious ceremonies take place in June, and the Park Service asks climbers to voluntarily refrain from scaling the tower during that month.
“To us, it is a very sacred place. A sacred site that’s like a church, a place of worship,” Looking Horse said.
According to the Park Service, most maps from 1874 to 1901 marked the tower as Bears Lodge – or in Looking Horse’s Lakota language, Mato Tipila. Local tribes have their own legends about how the tower was created, but most involve a bear clawing at a rock while trying to reach people on top of it.