Sacred Lands

The NPS’s efforts to help tribes access sacred sites within national parks is a work in progress.


Nearly a decade ago, at the invitation of Rick TwoDogs, a Lakota medicine man, I participated in a sweat lodge ceremony at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming with members of various tribes. It was the summer of 2007 and at the time I’d been the monument’s superintendent – its first-ever Native American one – for a little over a year. I can still recall how dark the sky was that night, filled with brilliantly lit stars that appeared to be so close that you could reach up and touch them. The summer solstice air was light and warm. I remember feeling a surge of pure joy as we sat by the fire waiting for the rocks to get hot enough to take into the ceremonial lodge.

Photo by David Kingham. Devils Tower
Devils Tower, a sacred site to more than 20 Plains tribes, became the country’s first national monument in 1906. Photo by David Kingham.

The setting made me think of the many tribal legends about how the tower, an igneous rock formation that rises nearly 900 feet into the sky, had been shaped thousands of years ago. My favorite is the Lakota one that tells of seven sisters and their brother who were playing in an area nearby. As they were running around, their brother turned into a bear and started to chase them. The seven sisters were terrified and jumped onto a big boulder and began to pray. The boulder began to rise up in the air taking the sisters out of the bear’s reach. The bear dug his claws into the side of the rock, trying to scale up and as he did so he made big scratches in the sides of the towering column. As they continued praying the sisters were lifted into the Milky Way and became the seven stars that make up the Pleiades.

During summer solstice the Pleiades is directly above this monolith on the western edge of the Black Hills that President Roosevelt declared the country’s first national monument in 1906. It is the time of the year when tribal people from around the country come to pay homage and perform ceremonies at what they prefer to call the “Lodge of the Bear.” This site is sacred to more than 20 Plains tribes. For hundreds of years, we have performed religious and cultural ceremonies here, including the sun dance, sweat lodge rites, vision quests, and prayer offerings.

These ceremonies were disrupted for nearly a century after the 1883 Indian Religious Crimes Code took away our right to practice traditional tribal spiritual ways. Sadly, the image of United States as a refuge from religious persecution wasn’t reflected in its treatment of the religious practices of Native Americans. It was not until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed, that we, as tribal people, could enjoy the same guarantees as other Americans under the First Amendment. The act protects and preserves for American Indians their “inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise traditional religions… including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”

photo of a woman looking skyward and singingphoto Erin Whittaker / npsA Havasupai woman offers a blessing to a new landmark at the Grand Canyon National Park in 2010.

With the ability to openly practice traditional ceremonies restored, the issue of actually having access to sacred places where these ceremonies were performed arose, as many of these sites were no longer within tribal ownership. This was a critical factor as tribal religious practices are tied to the land, which itself is thought to be a sacred, living entity. These sacred sites are often the focal point of a tribe’s creation stories and oral histories, which are passed down through generations and tie new generations to their culture and identity.

While AIRFA is a foundational piece of legislation, it doesn’t legally protect Native Americans’ holiest places, nor does it protect tribal religious practices that conflict with the government’s land use. This was made very clear in a landmark 1989 Supreme Court ruling in the Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association case, which found that private and governmental land holders’ rights to develop their properties superseded Native Americans’ right to practice their religion, even though the actions of landowners “could have devastating effects on traditional Indian religious practices.”

This damaging ruling was ameliorated somewhat in 1998, when President Clinton issued an executive order directing federal land management agencies to “accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners,” and “avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sites.” However, the Lyng decision is legal precedent, which means President Clinton’s directive doesn’t hold up when challenged in court. Only an act of Congress can rectify the existing gap in protection for sacred sites. The lack of strong legal protection given to sites considered sacred by tribes is a serious hindrance to efforts to preserve Native Americans’ religious freedom and practices.

A large number of Native American sacred sites are, of course, located on federal land, including in national parks. At the time the directive was passed, federal managers were ill-prepared to execute it. Local communities had established their own cultural events in connection with many of these ceremonial areas. In others, recreational activities had taken hold and tourism was on the rise. It was an entirely different world from when the ceremonies were banned in 1883. How could these traditional activities be intermixed with the new uses?

I like to think the National Park Service was ahead of the game in this regard. At Devils Tower, for instance, park officials had already developed a program to accommodate Indian religious practices several years before the executive directive.

After the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, many tribes had begun returning to the tower to perform their ceremonies. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the growing number of rock climbers visiting the site proved disruptive to their spiritual activities, leading many Native Americans to discontinue their rituals at the monument again. In 1992, recognizing the negative impact the drastic increase in the number of climbers was having on the Tower and on the ability of tribes to engage in their spiritual ceremonies, NPS officials began working out a comprehensive “Climbing Management Plan” for the monument.

photo showing a wizened tree festooned with colored ties, giant rock monolith showing behindphoto Matt DrobnikPrayer ties adorn a tree at Devils Tower.

After lengthy consultations with environmentalists, tribes, rock climbers, and others, the Park Service devised a plan to balance the competing visitor uses of the monument and to accommodate Indian religious ceremonies at the monument. The plan discourages, but does not prohibit, rock climbing at Devils Tower during June, when most of these ceremonies are held. A group of climbers sued the NPS and Department of Interior in 1996, claiming the plan promoted Native American religion over others. A US District Court dismissed the case saying a voluntary climbing ban wasn’t a violation of the establishment clause.

This was one of the earliest instances where federal land managers developed a program to accommodate Native American religious practices at a sacred site on public lands, and where the plan was then upheld by the courts. Since then, the Park Service has been working actively with tribal governments across the nation to provide them access to sacred sites. Tribal consultation has since become part of the NPS’s standing management policy.

When I arrived at Devils Tower in the summer of 2006, the monument was celebrating its centennial. Given that it is each park superintendent’s job to establish and maintain relationships with local tribes in the region, it was my job to consult with 24 tribes, from Blackfeet on the Canadian border to Kiowa in Oklahoma.

Having this many tribes to consult proved difficult to organize. At times topics, definitions, descriptions, and current uses of the monument created hostile communications among the tribes, local community members, and climbers. However, through continued sharing of stories and spending time together, obstacles diminished and all groups came to recognize they had a common goal: protection of the Tower.

One of my favorite quotes about the Tower, which I feel puts our jobs as federal land managers in perspective, is from former Devils Tower Superintendent Deb Liggett’s (1994-97) reflection in In the Light of Reverence, a documentary about the struggle to protect sacred sites. She said:

“What we are accommodating here at Devils Tower is Indian people’s rights to their culture. They are here for the long haul and they know it. These sacred sites are central to the perpetuation of their culture. One of our jobs here at Devils Tower is to protect that right.”

During my six-year tenure at the Tower, I came to understand that consultation with the tribes should take many forms. It shouldn’t always be in a room with an agenda. Make it interactive, do site visits, provide opportunities for all stakeholders to get to know one another. Over time, respect and trust will emerge.

Some of the consultations during my time took place in different settings, like during dinner at a climber’s home with community members and Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred Bundle, or the sweat lodge ceremony I participated in, which was also attended by several other NPS rangers and a climbing guide who was involved in the Bear Lodge litigation. It was pleasing to see everyone emerge from the lodge together that night to share food and stories in a relaxed setting.

Later, the other rangers told me that they appreciated the invitation because it helped them have a better understanding of what occurs within the ceremonial sweat lodge. Although participation in the sweat lodge wasn’t consultation per se, the sharing of tribal culture with those who worked closely with Native Americans helped with future tribal-consultation activities.

For me, personally, everything seemed to fall into place while I was standing under the stars that night. I understood why my life had led me to that point. I understood that going forward, my journey as a federal land manager and tribal member would be to act as a bridge between park staff, community members, and the local tribes whose sacred sites lie within park boundaries.

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