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Bill would block Devils Tower name change
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Bill would block Devils Tower name change

Devils Tower

Devils Tower is pictured rising above nearby farmland in 2015 in Crook County. 

Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis has introduced a bill to permanently protect the name of Devils Tower National Monument, reviving a lengthy battle over the landmark's name.

Senator John Barrasso is a co-sponsor.

Located in the northeastern corner of Wyoming, Devil’s Tower has longstanding spiritual significance to approximately 20 Native American tribes including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow and Lakota, who had inhabited the area for nearly 1,000 years. The site has significant religious significance for tribes who inhabited the Black Hills, who have long referred to the towering, stone monolith with terms like Bear Lodge, Bear's House, Bear's Tipi, Bear Peak, and Bear’s Lair.

Maps drafted by American-led expeditions from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries also refer to the name given by tribes indigenous to the region, according to the National Park Service.

Since then, the tower’s name – and legacy – have been the subject of debate between those looking to preserve its contemporary legacy and the tribes who lay claim to the land, who were ousted from the region in 1874 by the United States government in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was penned six years earlier.

Around 1875, the site was renamed Devil’s Tower by a group of explorers led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who wrote that "the Indians call this place 'bad god's tower.” In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation making the name permanent, despite the fact that no other records exist of Indigenous persons referencing the site as “Devil’s Tower” -- a fact that has led many to believe the name came about as a result of a bad translation.

While the National Park Service eventually ended a long-standing ban on religious rites being performed at the site, Devils Tower’s growing popularity with rock climbers in the early 1990s sparked a renewed interest in the tower’s connection to Indigenous peoples, leading activists – including the National Congress of American Indians – to push for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename the tower several times in the ensuing decades.

“Indigenous people have for over a century repeatedly stated that the 1906 ‘Devils Tower’ name is not the correct translation of the rock’s name and that the Devils Tower name is offensive, insulting, and disparaging because it equates Indigenous cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to ‘devil worship,’ in essence equating Indigenous people to ‘devils,’” an NCAI resolution from 2014 states.

Lummis’ bill – if passed into law – would put an end to that debate, or at least pause it: While the bill is being considered by Congress, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names cannot consider a name change.

“Devils Tower is one of the most iconic sights in Wyoming,” Lummis said in a statement announcing the bill. “It’s the first national monument in the United States, and a place of significance for everyone who sees it, from the tourists who visit to the native peoples and Wyoming residents who live nearby. Devils Tower is well known across the country and around the world as a historical and cultural landmark, and it is critical that we maintain its legacy and its name.”

Changing the name of a national monument is not without precedent, the NCAI argued. According to its resolution, nine of the 18 national monuments established by President Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act of 1906 have either been abolished or no longer retain their original monument designation, while roughly half of the current national parks have “undergone a significant change in their name, agency or boundaries, showing historical precedent for enacting change to reflect the nation’s values, and priorities.”

The most recent example came under the administration of President Barack Obama, who oversaw the name change of Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Denali in 2015.

Lummis’ bill is not the first time a Wyoming lawmaker has sought to make the Devil’s Tower moniker permanent. In 2005, then-Rep. Barbara Cubin introduced legislation to protect the name of the tower after a proposal by the Department of the Interior was weighed to revert the name to its original translation, saying at the time "It is my belief and the belief of scores of people from around the Devils Tower region that a name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities."

The Wyoming delegation – including Barrasso, Lummis and then Sen-Mike Enzi – sponsored similar legislation in 2015 amid an active discussion to change the name. However, it is unclear whether the board is currently considering a name change to the tower.

The United States Geological Survey has been contacted for comment.

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