This article begins with three stories to describe the same place. One is the origin story as told in the Oglala Lakota tradition*, the next is the geologic origin story, and finally, the common story.
Storytelling, just like climbing, is a way to find meaning. It’s a way to contextualize our experiences and derive significance from them. For Native American Heritage Month, I wanted to explore meaning and how that intersects with what the outdoor community needs. So, I challenge you to consider which of these stories means the most to you:
*A Note on the story: There are many versions on the origin story for Bear’s Lodge; a group of warriors get chased and are save, a traveling band is overrun by giant bears, some children – 5 girls and 2 boys – are threatened by the Giant Bear and are saved by Great Mystery. The story changes depending on what you need to learn. Consider what lesson can be taken from this version of the story.
The Story of Bear’s Lodge
There was once a warrior who would travel into the wilderness where he could be with the Great Mystery in solitude to call for visions to build strength and foresight . He always carried a buffalo skull with him to honor his four-legged kin that roamed and knew all the secrets of the land.
On one night, he made it to the base of Mato Tipila. This mountain was so tall that it blocked the moon, and he couldn’t continue to travel in the dark. So he made his fire and fell asleep in its shadow. When he woke the next morning, he found himself on top of the high mountain. Seeing his people’s land spread out in all directions, he became extremely scared because the trees looked like far away sticks. For days and days, he danced and pleaded with the Great Mystery to save him. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, he was relieved to see he had been returned to the ground. This time, since it was daylight, he saw that he was at the entrance to Mato the Great Bear’s Lodge. He looked up at the mountain and saw that Mato had scratched away at the rock using his big claws. The warrior realized that he had disturbed the Bear’s rest by dancing on the top of his lodge, and Mato had clawed the mountain away trying to get him.
From that day on, the warrior and his people would go there often to worship and dance. The skull of the buffalo is still on top of the mountain, keeping watch for the warrior’s people from the world beyond this one.
This is story of Mato Tipila, Bear’s Lodge. This is how the story was told to me.
The Geologic Origin Story of Bear’s Lodge (aka Devil’s Tower)
Between 225 and 195 million years ago, much of the western United States was covered by an inland sea. During this time period, there was a massive deposition of sedimentary sequences, which literally oscillated between sand, silts and mud, and eventually (much later in the Cretaceous) limestones formed in the Caribbean-like waters. Had it not been for the sea monsters, you might have enjoyed a beautiful beach holiday. These advances and retreats – as sea level rose and fell – created a layer-cake mud pie (eventually becoming sandstone and limestone).
Approximately 60 million years ago, the world began to shift again — literally. This time tectonic forces bowed the landscape, pushing up the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills like a crumpled rug behind a too-low door.
The crust is very thin compared to the molten rock in the mantle. So, when you break the crust in one place, it forms weaknesses in others. Heated rock – like any fluid – prefers to go get away from high pressure. So, some of that rock gets injected into the existing rock (this is known as a magmatic stock or intrusions). That sedimentary rock is much colder and acts like an icebox, chilling the molten mix until it becomes so thick, it stops moving to the surface. As that rock cools off, it pulls together – like paint poured onto a surface. That contraction causes stress fractures along the rockface. Because of the mineral composition and the geomechanical behaviors of igneous rocks, these rocks like to break into hexagonal columns.
Over time, wind and water find weaknesses in the sedimentary rock and began eroding them away. However, igneous (that molten rock type) formations are made of harder materials and don’t weather as easily. So, the intrusion stays as the land literally melts away. The same processes that destroyed the existing rock also weathered the monolith, resulting in the yellow-redding color we see today.
Just like any investigative science, there still a lot about the geology of Devil’s Tower that needs to be understood. The processes that formed the monolith are not unique — columnar jointing, sequence stratigraphic processions, and erosion — all occur in other areas around the world. What makes the Tower unique is the sheer scale of the thing. It rises well over 1200 feet from the floor beneath it, covers an area of just under 1350 acres, and has a 13 acre boulder field at its base.
The Common Story
It’s big, it’s there and I want to climb it, or – WOW.
So, which of these has the most meaning for you? Climbing is ultimately striving for meaning in whatever form that manifests for you. Maybe it is spiritual, personal… maybe it’s technical and clinical. No matter what, when you find yourself out there, undoubtedly you experience the moment of extreme wonder and oneness that arises when you are completely present and laser-beam focused. Maybe the mountains saved you – these ancestors helped you find your own truth or come back to yourself in some way. Maybe you find meaning in saving the mountains. In a real sense, it’s a story that you bring home after you wander into the woods.
Devil’s Tower has a voluntary closure every June to allow the Lakota Nation to gather for ceremony; this is a sacred time when the Nations come together to heal the land and the people — ALL people. The warriors literally sacrifice of their flesh to protect future generations. Hopefully this helps illustrate why there should be reverence, solitude and space for the month of ceremony. Since the Tribes were forcibly and violently removed from these places, they do not have guaranteed access to practice the ceremony.
It took the Lakota nearly a century to gain an audience to ask for access for that month. The compromise would be a voluntary closure during the month of June. Getting the closure established was a deeply discussed and highly collaborative act between the Tribes and climbing community. It’s been 30 years since the first closure, and yet there continues to be debate. Rock and Ice did a piece on it back in 2018. And, despite the fact that the closure is in place, people still go. About 25% of climbers still go clambering up the granitic dihedrals while the Sun Dance and other ceremonies are happening by the Belle Fourche river below.
It’s not hyperbolic to put it in these terms: would you consider it acceptable to go buildering in St. Peter’s Cathedral during High Mass? If the Pope asked you to kindly abstain from scaling the walls in the Sistine Chapel, would you? If you wanted to take a dump on the floor of the Potala Palace, would you get mad if someone asked you to clean it up? Probably not… why then does the community get angry when NPS and the 20+ Tribes ask you not to climb during that month? For Native American Heritage Month, it’s worth sitting for a moment and contemplating why – as an outdoor enthusiast – it feels wrong to be told not to go there for a short period of time. The rock will always be there for you to climb, so what meaning do you derive from climbing it right then, right there, and in that way? Why does that meaning matter more than the sacred prayer and offering of an entire Indigenous Nation that hopes to preserve the Earth for future generations?
Meaning — and understanding how fundamentally different Native communities and colonial communities experience it — is vital to honoring the First Peoples that live in kinship with the land. In order to truly comprehend that, we as a community have be willing to change the way we interact with landscape, look at the landscape as a living being, and respect the lessons that the original stewards offer.
Author’s Note: For Native American Heritage Month, it’s important to amplify the Native voices of those groups like Indigenous Womxn Climb, Indigenous Women Hike Club, and local tribes that are working and advocating in the space of recreation on tribal lands. Recognize that no one person speaks for an entire community and that there is no such thing as “Native American culture or heritage” – it’s actually more than 573 (federally-recognized) sovereign nations with their own laws, cultural norms and language.
So here’s the general idea to get you closer to honoring the stewards of this land.
1. Know your treaties.
2. Know who’s land you are on.
3. Know how to be good kin for the land.
4. If you don’t know, it’s okay to start by asking. Google it. Pick up a book.
Start the journey as if you were on your first trip outside. Book, Access, Gear, Approach, Find, Read, Climb, Pack and Retreat. Then repeat. Happy learning!
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Editor’s Note: Among the multitude of descriptors we could attach to Amakali including scientist, rock climber, and activist, we are most proud to call her our friend.