Why We Should Abide The Devils Tower Voluntary Climbing Ban
The other day while scrolling through social media, I came across this post from Access Fund’s instagram account, encouraging people to “respect and honor the voluntary closure of Devils Tower during the month of June to show our respect to the numerous Native American tribes that consider it a sacred site during this month.”
A very small amount of scrolling later I came across an image from a prominent Devils Tower guiding company of someone climbing on the tower.
I don’t know a lot about the interaction between the climbing community and the tribes local to Devils Tower, but I do know that Native Americans in this country have been dealt a pretty fucking shitty hand ever since Manifest Destiny became all the rage for this burgeoning leviathan called the United States of America, and that basically, if they want us not to climb somewhere, that’s the least we could do. To me, the issue seems like a bit of a no-brainer.
I also think it’s pretty ass backwards to call a sacred religious site “Devils Tower.” That would be like calling Mecca, Jerusalem, or the Vatican something like “Lucifer’s Palace.” It’s almost as bad, symbolically, as chiseling enormous busts of a bunch of Indian killers into a sacred mountain (see: Mount Rushmore). Almost.
For starters, it’s not Devils Tower. It’s Bear’s Lodge.
The name the Cheyenne gave to it is Bear’s Lodge. According to the National Park Service, “Devils Tower is where Sweet Medicine died and it is his final earthly resting place. Sweet Medicine is the great culture hero of the Cheyenne who brought the Four Sacred Arrows to the tribe. The Four Sacred Arrows’ sanctuary was located within a secret cave on the south side of Bear’s Lodge. Sweet Medicine also founded the Cheyenne Warrior Societies, tribal government, special laws, and ceremonies. As Sweet Medicine lay dying in a hut by Bear’s Lodge, he foretold a dark prophecy of the coming of the horse; the disappearance of the old ways and the buffalo, to be replaced by slick animals with split hoofs the people must learn to eat (cattle). He told of the coming of white men, strangers called Earth Men who could fly above the earth, take thunder from light, and dig up the earth and drain it until it was dead.”
Aaaand that’s basically what has happened.
We care when it’s convenient.
It’s interesting to think of this in conjunction with the current hype over Bears Ears. An exceptional article that Georgie Abel wrote recently pointed out how the climbing community shifted the focus of the Bears Ears struggle away from its cultural significance, and rebranded it as a climbing struggle. As Abel said, “The outdoor community’s misunderstanding of Bears Ears doesn’t just depict how we have misappropriated and harmfully simplified this issue — it reveals the way we approach activism as an industry.”
To me, Abel’s assessment is spot on. And the apparent response (or lack thereof) to the voluntary climbing closure at Bear’s Lodge simply drives the point home further. We are all on board and willing to stand up for Native Americans… when it serves us as climbers. But when it doesn’t, climbers seem perfectly happy to look away. Just think of the massive outpouring of support for Bears Ears versus Standing Rock. Where was the climbing community then? And what might it have looked like if North Dakota was full of sicky limestone instead?
At the time that Abel was working on her article, I discussed these ideas with her on the phone. “You know, Georgie,” I told her, “let’s pretend climbers are, for the most part, self-absorbed and unconcerned with making the world a better place… Now let’s pretend you want them to donate their precious time, money, and energy to a cause they normally wouldn’t care about. What better way than to make it about climbing? Simply trick them. Make them think Bears Ears is a climbing battle, and watch the hashtags roll in.”
I felt kind of dirty saying that, then, and I still do now. And while I think it’s true, and a good strategy, I also think it’s a shame. We’re not climbers, folks, we’re humans. The point of the game is not to be a better climber, it’s to be a better person. It doesn’t matter if there are no crags anywhere near Standing Rock, and it’s irrelevant how good the splitters on Devils Tower (ew, can we just stop calling it that? Bear’s Lodge) are.
But what about the guides?
One month. June. That’s all they’re asking for. It is not so onerous. And for the local guiding companies who bring money to the area (and who I have heard also donate money and resources to the local tribes), why don’t we all just come together and cover their operating costs so they don’t have to take an enormous hit during what’s probably the heart of the guiding season? How much money could that be? Probably more than Joe Schmo climber has… but you know who probably DOES have that kind of money? The $887 billion outdoor industry.
I think you could get a handful of brands together to foot the bill, making sure the guiding companies we proudly support don’t take the hit for our modicum of cultural sensitivity. Shit, you could probably even add in a healthy lump sum of cash to thank the local tribes for allowing us to climb on Bear’s Lodge all eleven of the other months. And for independent climbers, maybe just wait a month? Go to Tensleep, Fremont Canyon, Black Hills, Spearfish, Lander, or anywhere in the front range instead. For one month.
That doesn’t sound so crazy, does it? To me, it just sounds like climbers caring about something other than climbing. Which, though it is novel, doesn’t strike me as a bad idea at all. Who knows, it might even make you send harder. Actually, let’s just say it does. Caring is sending. I’ll start that rumor. It totally works. Try it for yourself, and see…