Albion Monitor /Commentary

Comes the Seventh Generation

by Sara Peyton

Walking from Saskatchewan to Wyoming for prayers at sacred mountain

On May 3, some 300 Native Americans and friends gathered at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, and mounted horses to journey through North America's rugged western lands to pray for world peace and harmony. Their destination -- Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument -- the forbidding volcanic monolith that is sacred to Northern Plains Indians. It was also the nation's first monument, designated by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.

Known as Gray Buffalo Horn Butte to Native Americans and considered the premiere crack climbing site by climbers, today this geological wonder is the locus of a landmark compromise hammered out by rock climbers, environmentalists, Park Service staff, and Indian leaders. The successful year-old agreement regulates rocking climbing at the popular federal park. But plaintiffs in a lawsuit recently filed by local guide Andy Petefish and joined by such Wise-Use organizations such as Mountain States Legal Foundation and others against the National Park Service and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, in U.S. District Court in Wyoming seek to destroy the pact.

Rock climbers and Wise-Use groups claim "right" to climb during time of deep spiritual significance to Indians

What's all the fuss about? Last year, under the provisions of the new agreement climbers were asked to comply with a voluntary climbing ban in June, a time of deep spiritual significance to Indians. That's when many Indian ceremonies taking place at Devils Tower including a Sun dance, prayers, and vision quests. But petitioners argue that the Management Plan -- which prohibits commercial climbing and strongly discourages non-commercial climbing during June -- violates their First Amendment rights. I guess they think the right to climb is in the constitution; kind of how teens feel about driving. One plaintiff, Gary Anderson, complains he has climbed Devils Tower in June for 12 years and therefore must continue to do so.

The new plan also prohibits drilling new bolts or fixed pitons in the awesome, steep vertical columns, that rise 5,117 feet from the base. But as Park Service documents observe, "American Indians perceive climbing on the tower and the proliferation of bolts, pitons, slings, and other climbing equipment on the tower as a desecration to their sacred site...Elders have commented that the spirits do not inhabit the area anymore because of all the visitors and use of the tower, thus it is not a good place to worship as before." And, according to federal statute American Indians have the legal right to exercise their religious freedom with access guaranteed to sacred sites for ceremonial worship.

"Think of the tower as a cathedral of nature," writes Charles Levendosky about his annoyance with the lawsuit in an April, High Country News editorial. "The tower was a holy place long before it became a national monument or a climbers' paradise." But, he adds: "If Native Americans were truly recognized as equal before the law with mainstream religions, this would be no more than a frivolous lawsuit. It would be summarily dismissed." I agree.

More infuriating, the agreement worked. Last year the voluntary climbing ban limited the number of climbers in June 1995 to 193, a substantial drop to some 1300 the previous year and leaving Indians in relative peace to practice their religion.

Elders said then that it would take seven generations to mend the hoop

But without an outcome of the court case in hand the horse riders continue their long trek toward Devils Tower, past Central Butte and Sitting Bull's Big Camp. Announced by Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, the spiritual leader has declared the summer solstice, June 21, World Peace and Prayer Day. Looking Horse interprets the recent birth of a white buffalo calf as a sign to begin mending the Sacred Hoop and begin global healing. The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations say the Sacred Hoop was broken during the massacre on Wounded Knee, Dec. 29, 1890, when Sitting Bull was killed. Elders said then that it would take seven generations to mend the hoop, and that time is near, writes Looking Horse. "Our children and grandchildren will be part of the Seventh Generation. We must ride to show them the way to spirituality and sobriety for the future of our nations."

So it is in this reverent spirit that the 1996 riders, whose numbers are expected expand to 1,000, head toward Devils Tower. Their spiritual journey is the fourth in a series of "unity rides" that began in 1993. This year, spiritual leaders plan to set the direction for the Seventh Generation to fulfill the prophecies of the elders, explains Looking Horse. "We ask all people of all faiths to respond and support our efforts toward world peace and harmony -- our circle of life where there is no ending and no beginning." If there is no return to balance, say Indian elders, we face global disaster.

We can only agree.

For more information of World Peace and Prayer Day, contact Paula Horn, 612-695-2675. To make your opinions known about the lawsuit contact Steve Gunn, Attorney General of the Cheyenne River Sioux, 605-964-6686, or fax 605-964-1166.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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