To Native American people, the basalt volcanic uplifts that have become familiar landmarks on the Plains are more than simply geologic features.
Devils Tower in Wyoming, Bear Butte in South Dakota, and their smaller relative, Valmont Butte in Colorado, are venerated by a number of tribes for their ancient origins deep within the earth, according to participants in a “Contemporary Realities and the Protection of Sacred Sites” panel.
The panel was convened as part of a training conference of the Society of the American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) June 3-8 in Denver and attended by some 450 members of the organization.
The origin of Devils Tower was presented by Dorothy FireCloud, Rosebud Sioux, National Park Service (NPS) superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument. A short summary of one Lakota version tells of girls being chased by a giant bear. They were saved by climbing a hill that grew skyward as the bear clawed at them futilely, leaving the marks seen today on the tower. The bear then fought a dinosaur, creating the Badlands, and on his way back he fell asleep, the origin of Bear Butte. The girls became the star cluster Pleiades, or the seven sisters.
A number of tribes lived or traveled through the area, FireCloud said, but now there are conflicts among climbers, Natives and nearby non-Native communities.
A brief film illustrated some of the problems in protecting sacred sites. A non-Native person from a town near the Tower insisted that “Our family history goes back seven generations—there really were no Native Americans here until they were brought here by the Park Service.” Others said, “Our culture is as important as the Indian culture” and “We’re being invaded.”
The NPS initially banned guided climbs at the Tower in June, when a number of ceremonies are conducted there, but finally decided on a voluntary ban that was respected by many—but not all—climbers, she said of the partial victories common to preservation.
Steve Moore, senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, agreed that sacred sites issues represent difficulties and “tough litigation.” He talked about preservation efforts at Valmont Butte, near Boulder, Colorado, which is owned by the city rather than being on federal land.
The city at one time proposed a fire training facility or biosolids treatment plant on the Butte, but abandoned the plans after opposition, including criticism from the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance, composed of pioneer family descendants, area Natives, environmental groups, and others.
A study on the east side of the Butte determined there could be a number of cultural materials 10,000 years old, and the whole eastern quadrant of the site has a “high potential for cultural resources,” Moore said.
Jack L. Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, said a basic question is, “Do you have to protect sacred sites?” and responded that the answer is “no,” the laws are not forcing one to protect sacred sites—unless government action furthers a compelling government interest. However, he added, there is discretion to protect such sites or traditional cultural properties.
Protective legislation is “fairly limited and/or unclear,” he said, but sacred sites-friendly laws include those of the Transportation Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act allows access to sacred sites and preserves their use for ceremonial purposes.
The panel agreed efforts were worth the time and energy it takes to initiate sacred sites protective measures.
As Moore says of such places as Valmont Butte, however difficult the preservation issues “The site still speaks to Native people. This place is inherently sacred.”