Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For background on the confrontation between Native people and rock climbers, see Sara Peyton's column in our last issue.]

"Seventh Generation" Native Ceremony Peaceful

by George Snyder

Native sacred rights vs commercial exploitation of public lands

National Park Service officials at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming say the World Peace and Prayer Day held on the Solstice at the sacred Lakota site was a great success, despite a legal challenge by a rock climbing business and Wise Use groups opposed to closing the monument to commercial climbers during June ceremonies.

"We had two to three thousand people at the actual ceremony, most of them American Indian," said Devil's Tower Superintendent Deborah Liggett. "From our point of view it was a positive experience. It was probably the largest group of Indians to visit the Tower at one time, from what we understand. And no one climbed the Tower during the Solstice or the following day."

"Once they learn, it seems as though they have a lot of respect and understanding of what it is about"

Liggett said even Andy Petefish of Tower Guides, who along with the Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association -- a mix of timber, mining and ranching interests -- and the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation which provided the legal clout, sought and obtained a temporary injunction against the Park Service rock climbing management plan on June 9, failed to take climbers up the Tower during the ceremonies led by Dr. Arvil Looking Horse, the 19th Pipe Bearer of the Lakota Nation.

The MSLF had contended that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment rule against the state establishment of religion. Although she was reluctant to discuss pending legal situation surrounding the Park Service June commercial climbing ban -- part of a monument management plan aimed at reconciling Native American spiritual uses at the Tower , also called Bear Lodge Butte and Gray Buffalo Horn Butte by various Indian Nations -- Liggett said she was moved by the event to which she had been officially invited.

Devils Tower "I found the Indian people to be gracious, and the sight of the Tower surrounded by a ring of tipis and a great circle of Indian people with the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe and the Keeper of the Sacred Hat in the center and the drumming and the singing was very impressive. It offered visitors another perspective of American culture, and it gave me goosebumps."

She said that although the legal hassles surrounding the management plan and its effort to include the spiritual needs of Indian people was difficult, nonetheless, she said, "I think the issues it raises [Native sacred rights vs commercial exploitation of public lands] is an important one and one that needs discussion."

Liggett added that she expected the National Park Service and the U.S. Justice Department, which is appealing the District Court ruling granting Petefish the temporary injunction, to continue litigation in early fall.

She added that in addition to the obligatory commercial climbing ban, it appeared that most private climbers continued to observe a voluntary ban on climbing during the month of June.

"What was most interesting is that we had only two groups of international climbers come this year, and they were not aware of the ban. Last year we had a lot more international groups come who didn't know about the closure. But once they learn, it seems as though they have a lot of respect and understanding of what it is about," she said.

In 1995, the first year the management plan was instituted, Liggett said about 198 climbers chose to recreate on the Tower as compared with more than a thousand the year before. This year's numbers, although still being tabulated, seem to be lower than last year's.

"This outcome could affect the use of public lands by indigenous groups across the country"

The outcome of the legal confrontation between the Park Service and the wise-use forces, according to Liggett, "could affect the use of public lands by indigenous groups across the country for years to come."

"This is a high profile case. What happens here could very well determine how Native spiritual and religious rights are dealt with on public lands for many years down the line."

About 80 percent of the nation's 192 million acres of public forest land is claimed by one tribe or another, so the issue is of vital importance to Native communities currently engaged in conflicts over the exploitation or the loss of sites considered sacred, including the Hopi of Arizona or the Yurok of Northern California whose traditional cultures are based on land-based spirituality.

Such places include sacred Wintu and Mewuk sites on Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay Area, which are threatened by the construction of communications towers. On Mount Shasta, the proposed development of ski resorts threaten to destroy or block access to spiritually important areas in use for thousands of years.

Proponants of the Park Service plan, including the Lakota, Dakota and Cheyenne Nations as well as sympathetic rock-climbing guides -- seven out of eight companies at the Tower -- support the ban as a reasonable way to accommodate not only the tribes, but the half-million tourists and the 6,000 climbers who annually flock to the monument.

Liggett also added that in addition to providing spiritual breathing space for Native people, the two-year-long scoping session between environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, the climbers and Native Americans was very useful in bringing both sides together.

"Even if they don't always agree," she said, "at least they went away from the table understanding compromise and with new respect for each other's views."

That sentiment was expressed by Rapid City, South Dakota, fireman and rock-climbing guide, Bob Archibald.

"Respect is the key to ending the controversy," he said. "June is a very special time of year for them at the Tower. There is a Sundance, a Sacred Hoop run and other observances. How would you like it if someone came into your church while services were going on and threw a party? What this is about is respect. We came into this with the climbers on one side and the Native Americans on the other -- very far apart. When we left, even if we didn't always agree, we went away understanding compromise and with a lot of new understanding about one another."

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux leaders considered this year's Solstice to be an exceptional time of power

For Indian people, like Arvil Looking Horse, the Solstice ceremonies were all about people coming together in order to stave off spiritual and ecological calamity.

According to their traditions this is a time when the Sacred Hoop of the Sioux -- and by extension harmony for all people -- could be mended after seven generations of oppression and environmental degradation they believe threatens all humanity. "According to the spiritual leaders and elders," says Looking Horse, "the signs of Indigenous people's prophecies have shown themselves. The prophecies tell us it is time to begin mending the Sacred Hoop and begin global healing by working toward world peace and harmony. The birth of the White Buffalo Calf (2 years ago in Wisconsin) let us know we are at a crossroads. Either return to balance or face global disaster."

As part of this year's ceremonies, Looking Horse and dozens of Sioux Horsemen let the Wahpeton Dakota Reserve at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, May 3, riding up to 40 miles a day from reservation to reservation and picking up riders, many of them descendants of the people Hunkpapa Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull took with him when he fled north near the end of the Plains Indian wars.

It was the way, they said, to mend the broken Hoop of the Sioux Nation.

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Albion Monitor July 4, 1996 (

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