Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 12, 2000 - Issue 16

American Indian Perspectives
Religions Deserve Respect
by Charlin Diver from an article in
Duluth News

A monument in Wyoming is sacred to about 20 plains Indian tribes, and during June, spiritual ceremonies are held by this great rock of basalt that shoots up hundreds of feet in the sky.

It is called Devil's Tower, but Bear Lodge to American Indians. The rock has many streaks and gashes running up and down along the sides as if a giant had made the scratches with its claws.

There are many stories of how those streaks and gashes got there, but one by John Fire Lame Deer goes like this: Two young boys were out playing games and with each game they played, they wandered farther and farther from their village. They investigated noises among the hills that kept drawing them farther away from home. They saw a large hill and wanted to see what was on the other side.

Seeing a herd of antelope, and being great hunters, they tracked the animals until they got lost. They decided to head back to their village and took off in the direction they thought was home, but only got farther and farther away. They went to sleep for the night and awoke the next morning to continue the search for their village. On the way they drank water from streams and ate berries to nourish themselves.

On the fourth day, they had the feeling they were being followed, and, looking in the distance, they saw a giant bear coming in their direction. They started running, but the giant bear, being much faster than they were, gained on them and opened his great mouth to devour them. They could see his enormous teeth and feel his hot breath as he was about to get a mouthful of them. Since they were old enough to know how to pray, they prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Creator:

"Tunkashila, Grandfather, have pity, save us!'' All at once the earth shook and began to rise, the boys rose with it. They were on a huge rock going up, up, up, in the air until it was a thousand feet high. The bear was disappointed to miss his meal, but he still tried to climb the rock to get to the boys to eat them. He dug his giant claws in and tried to climb, but he could not get a good grip to get to the boys. He only made these huge claw marks in the side of the rock. Finally he grew tired and started walking away. Thus ends the legend.

In 1952, the tower became the country's first national monument. It was a popular tourist stop for some who were visiting many of the national parks around the Montana-Wyoming-South Dakota area. Many rock climbers also flocked to the monument, not to visit it, but to climb it because it was an 867-foot rock column that shot straight into the sky.

But long before the tourists and climbers arrived, northern plains Indians lived and worshipped at Bear Lodge. Sadly, American Indians during that time had to feign being tourists themselves so that they could get into the park to pray and perform their ceremonies. Today this rock is used by many rock-climbing groups, but, during June 1995, when the Indians performed their ceremonies, many of the rock climbers refused to quit so that these ceremonies and praying could be performed. After being asked to refrain from climbing during the month of June, many rock climbers refused and sued the Park Service, arguing the policy violated the separation between church and state. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court let the closure stand.

The reason I tell this is because it is a story that is a testimony to the struggle of American Indians to practice their religious ceremonies in peace. Although the Indian Religious Freedom Act was enacted in 1978, many Indians around North America are still having difficulty and are still banned from practicing many of their religious activities.

It has been in the news recently, and I think non-Indians need to know and need to respect the ceremonies of American Indians. If these rock climbers went to Jerusalem and started to climb the Wailing Wall, that government would be outraged. But American Indian religion has been disrespected for centuries without recourse.

Read about Mato Tipi and other Sacred Sites:

Mato Tipi

Native Americans and the Environment-Sacred Sites

Diver is an instructor at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa.



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