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Devils Tower officials implement a voluntary climbing closure to honor Indigenous peoples

Jeff Myers
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Flickr via CC BY-NC 2.0

Devils Tower officials have issued a voluntary climbing closure that extends throughout June since 1996 to respect Native American cultural and religious activities. This has led to an 85 percent reduction of climbing permits. Those permits are free but are required to climb.

The National Park Service originally drafted a climbing management plan in 1995, which includes language about the annual voluntary climbing closure. It was updated in 2006.

“This place, it's considered to be a place of reverence. Some Native perspectives look at this place as a sacred site, [and] it's pretty important to understand that this place is kind of equivalent to maybe St. Peter's Basilica, or the Salt Lake City temple, or the Western Wall,” Tyler Devine, an interpretive ranger at Devils Tower said. “Eastern and Western religions build their holy places, [while] Indigenous cultures throughout the world do not. These cultures’ spirituality and cultural identity rest with the formations on the landscape, so when they are displaced from their places of spirituality, it causes a severe amount of stress upon that culture.”

The cultural and religious activities that take place each year often revolve around the summer solstice and may include a sun dance or smoke ceremony. Divine stressed these are not “spectator sports” and that park officials strive to let these practices be conducted with privacy. Some of the most visible signs of these expressions are prayer cloths and bundles that are tied to trees that represent prayers. These can often be seen on the pathways that circle the tower.

Devils Tower prayer cloths
rabi w
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Flickr via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Prayer cloths tied to trees by Native Americans are a common sight at Devils Tower. They represent prayers, much like candles in a church do in Eastern and Western religions. The tower holds cultural or religious significance for 26 tribes.

Devine said that climbing the tower is considered disrespectful by many of the 26 tribes that consider Devils Tower culturally, spiritually, or religiously significant no matter what time of year it’s done.

“Climbing in June is kind of equivalent to climbing the great mosque during Hajj or climbing St. Peter's on Easter,” he said. “The least we can do is respect our fellow Americans who have been here for millennia, their history, their beliefs, their culture, and their request that we at least don't climb in June.”

Around 3,000 to 5,000 visitors climb Devils Tower each year, between May and October. Its recorded non-Native climbing history dates back to the late 19th century when two local ranchers scaled the tower using a wooden ladder. Climbers from around the world regularly make the journey to climb it.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.

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