Wyoming historian Phil Roberts discovered a single memorial to a confederate hero in the Cowboy State, a grave marker noting the final resting place of John C. Hunton at Cheyenne’s Lakeview Cemetery. After serving in Virginia’s 7th Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, Hunton became a wealthy cattle rancher along Chugwater Creek.
Hunton’s tombstone likely won’t generate a debate over removing confederate war memorials in Wyoming. But, there are “memorials” to the genocide and cultural destruction wrought by the U.S. government during and after the Indian Wars in the American West. One example is Devil’s Tower, the name the victors of that war attached to this sacred Native American site. There should be a discussion about giving back the names the Native Americans attached to this and other sites.
Long before white people invaded the land, the Black Hills was home to the Crow and Kiowa peoples among First World Nations. They were the first to name the extraordinary rock formation in Northeast Wyoming.
According to Mary Alice Gunderson’s book “Devil’s Tower: Stories in Stone,” the people of the Crow nation called it “Dabicha Asow,” meaning “Bear’s Lair.” Through interviews and Indian legends collected by Dick Stone of Gillette, Gunderson recounts Native American beliefs about this rock.
Kills-Coming-to-the-Birds first saw the rock in 1833. Ninety-nine years later she said it was placed there “by the Great Spirit for a special reason.” The rock had important religious significance to Native peoples. Gunderson’s book and Stone’s collection include Indian legends about what the conquering white people took it upon themselves to call Devil’s Tower.
One tells of seven Crow girls and their brother playing. Suddenly the boy transformed into a bear. The bear chased the girls who found a tree stump. It invited them to climb aboard. The stump reached into the sky as the bear climbed after them, leaving claw marks yet visible on the sides of the impressive rock. The Great Spirit kept the girls beyond the reach of the bear. “The seven sisters were born into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”
To the victor go the spoils. They tried to erase the stories. According to Native American writer Leslie Silko book “Ceremony,” the first novel published by a female Native writer, this is the kind of Indian legend the white conquerors deemed “nonsense.” After white people stole the land and the stories, they deprived sacred sites of names by which the Indians knew them.
A National Park Service website admits Devil’s Tower was referred to as "Bear’s Lair," and "Bear’s Lodge," throughout much of the 1800s. “Devil’s Tower” was most likely the result of a bad translation. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Dodge’s 1875 journal noted, "The Indians call this shaft 'The Bad God's Tower.” The NPS acknowledges that "Bear Lodge" may have been mistakenly interpreted as "Bad God's." Congress adopted a paraphrased bad translation when it created “Devil’s Tower National Monument” in 1906.
In 2014, those who first owned the naming rights asked the name "Devils Tower National Monument" be changed. The Park Service acknowledged, “In each instance, the request is to change ‘Devils Tower’ to ‘Bear Lodge.’ More than twenty Tribes with close association to the Tower hold it sacred, and find the application of the name ‘Devils’ to be offensive.”
The name-change stalled when Wyoming’s congressional delegation objected. As a Lakota survivor of Custer’s Last Stand said, “Washington was where all the problems began.”
Insisting on retaining the name given this rock by the conquerors furthers the regrettable strategy of destroying Native Peoples’ culture. Despite concerns of tourism interests that changing the name would be bad for business, righting a wrong might prove to be as good for business as it would be for the heart.
A name change honoring those who first saw it and named it, who first came to understand it as sacred, and from whom the land was stolen would become a part of the legend, making “Bear Lodge” a more popular tourist destination.