Throughout the month of June, the National Park Service asks visitors to refrain from climbing Devils Tower to respect American Indian ceremonies. However, the closure is voluntary and the number of climbers in June has been on a steady rise in recent years.
At the Belle Fourche River campground near the base of Devils Tower, all 50 sites are taken. It’s early in the morning and people are just beginning to crawl out of their tents and a couple of teepees to start a fire and make breakfast. A lot of the campers are Native Americans who are here for their annual visit. One group are Lakota youth who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Waylon Black Crow Senior is among the chaperones to the kids. He said they didn’t drive to get here. They ran.
“So we start from Bear Butte and we go all around the Black Hills and we end at Bear Butte,” said Black Crow.
The tradition began 35 years ago and it’s called the Sacred Hoop 500 Mile Run. About 50 youth runners make a loop through the Black Hills and Devils Tower is their last stop.
“It’s like a prayer, because during the day they run all day,” said Black Crow. “They stand on that road. They run. And all they drink is water and fruits. So it’s like fasting all day and they’re running and they’re praying. They’re giving themselves. And at the end, it brings them up. So every year, they look forward to this.”
Black Crow said the runners especially look forward to making it to Bear Lodge—the Lakota name for Devils Tower.
He said it’s a sacred site, so it’s painful when climbers ignore the closure. But there’s not much Black Crow and other Native Americans can do about it since it’s voluntary.
“We see them climbing up there,” said Black Crow. “And all we can do is watch.”
Tim Reid is the Superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument. He said, when the park’s climbing management plan was developed in the early 90s, a working group of American Indians and climbing representatives came up with the idea as a kind of compromise.
Reid said tribal representatives felt a mandatory closure did not reflect the spirit of intent.
“June was the selected month,” said Reid. “And they wanted people to want to abstain from climbing out of respect for the sacred site status, and the cultural significance of the tower to 25-plus tribes in the intermountain area.”
And Reid said the climbers wanted the opportunity to show that their community could self-regulate. So, a voluntary closure made sense and it was put into the final draft of the climbing management plan.
That first season in 1995, the closure was hugely successful in reducing the numbers. The year before, more than 1,200 people climbed Devils Tower in June alone. That number went down to 167 the next season.
“But what we have ascertained in the last five years, there’s been a steady incremental increase in the number of climbers in June that’s not connected to just the steady overall increase of visitation at the monument,” said Reid.
Last year, 373 people climbed the tower in June. That doesn’t sound like a lot but, the problem is that it’s been slowly trending up. Reid said when it comes to who exactly the June climbers are, the data is imperfect.
“But I think that it’s safe to say that largely, the bulk of June climbing is done by relatively local or regional climbers, who for whatever reasons find it personally acceptable to climb in June,” Reid said.
One of those climbers is Frank Sanders.
“The towers not for one person, or one group of people, or one month, or one day, or one week,” said Sanders. “It’s for all of us.”
Sanders is a local, commercial climbing guide who owns and operates Devils Tower Lodge. Sanders said 18 years ago, he gave up drinking, and climbing the tower helps him to stay sober.
“It is conscious, constant contact with the Creator, or as in AA we say a higher power,” said Sanders. “I don’t think that the tower is my higher power, no, it’s not. But it certainly helps.”
Sanders said he knows not everyone agrees with his decision to climb in June. But he doesn’t see it as a problem.
“I cannot help but reflect on my time on the reservation, and I’ve had plenty of times on Rosebud and Pine Ridge, a lot of people there are as alcoholic as I am,” Sanders said.
Actually, studies show Native Americans abstain from alcohol use more than the general public.
“And I wish they would come to the tower,” said Sanders. “But the truth is the Natives as far as I can see that visit are token, they are few.”
But just down the road at the campground, there are dozens of multi-generational Native families who would disagree.
Along the mile and a half loop trail that circles the tower, prayer flags and offerings are visible, but the ceremonies that incorporate these objects are intentionally less visible.
Part of the reason they’re held in private may be tied to harassment. Waylon Black Crow Senior said not very many vehicles that pass by the runners on their journey cheer them on.
“They go by and throw trash at them,” said Black Crow. “They go by, and go ‘oh, oh, oh.’ Or they tell us to go home. ‘Red man, go home,’ or, ‘red skins, go home.’ And those are things that hurt. The kids come back crying. We tell them, “send it through one ear, and go out the other.” Remember who you are. Remember God made you special. The Creator made you special.”
As far as updating the climbing management plan, the National Parks Service would like to see the rising June numbers addressed through education, but if necessary they might have to move to a mandatory closure.