Opinion by Charles Levendosky





When the National Park Service shows some sensitivity to the religious needs of Native Americans, stomp it. And be sure to also grind a heel into American Indian religious liberty.


That's the way Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver apparently views it. Last month, the foundation filed a lawsuit against the Park Service for respecting Indian spiritual concerns.


Devils Tower, located in northeast Wyoming, has been a sacred site for many Northern Plains Indian tribes for centuries. It was designated America's first national monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.


But Devils Tower is also one of the premier climbing sites in the United States. Thousands of climbers arrive at the monument each year to test themselves against the vertical columns of the volcanic monolith. They represent a little more than 1 percent of the annual half-a-million visitors to the site each year.


There's the clash: a climbers' culture vs. Native American cultures.


In Christian terms, the clash amounts to someone hammering climbing bolts into one of the towers of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Easter Sunday, and yelling to another climber while you try to pray down in the pews.


Last year, the Park Service superintendent at Devils Tower implemented a climbing management plan to better respect the religious concerns of the Lakota, Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone tribes. The plan was the creation of a working group composed of climbers, tribal leaders, environmentalists, a county commissioner, and Park Service staff. It asks climbers to accept a voluntary ban on climbing Devils Tower during the month of June so that tribes can celebrate religious rites undisturbed. June is the month of the summer solstice when many tribes celebrate on the land surrounding Devils Tower with a Sun Dance, prayer offerings, sweatlodge ceremonies, and vision quests.


The plan also forbids placing new bolts or fixed pitons in the tower, but does allow replacing worn bolts or pitons - as a compromise with Native Americans who feel the bolts desecrate a holy site.


The voluntary ban was dramatically successful in its first year: In June 1995, only 193 people climbed the tower, compared to 1,293 the previous June.


Meanwhile, the Park Service has attempted to inform the public and climbers about the cultural and religious resources that Devils Tower represents. The ban promises to be adopted by even more climbers this June.


Then Mountain States Legal Foundation arrived on the scene.


In response to the voluntary climbing ban, the foundation filed a lawsuit against the superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, the National Park Service, and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. The suit claims that the Park Service has violated the First Amendment by creating the climbing ban for "religious purposes." The foundation represents a multiple-use association, a climbing guide and four climbers, all from Wyoming.


The foundation asks the Wyoming federal district court to end the climbing ban - even though the ban is voluntary.


If Native American religions 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.


But American Indian religions seldom win in the courts, federal or state. When Native Americans tried to preserve sacred sites like Rainbow Natural Bridge in Utah, Bear Butte in South Dakota, portions of the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona for religious ceremony, they lost in the courts. Tourism and skiing were deemed more important.


In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed logging roads through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in northern California. Chimney Rock is a spiritual site.


It is clear from history that Devils Tower is a sacred site for a number of Native American tribal beliefs. The area around the tower was also used as burial grounds for Northern Plains tribes.


Think of the tower as a cathedral in nature.


The tower was a holy place long before it became a national monument or a climbers' paradise.


That raises the question about interfering with Native Americans' right of free exercise of religion. Climbers do interfere with religious ceremonies at the base of the tower, as they would rappelling from the vaulted ceiling of your church during Mass.


Interfering with spiritual activities at recognized holy sites should be a violation of First Amendment protection of religious liberty.


The National Park Service does not have a multiple-use mandate; it is there to preserve designated cultural and natural resources, as well as the constitutional rights of Native Americans.


If the people who are suing would think for a moment, they might realize that nothing has been lost by this voluntary ban and something important has been gained - acceptance of and respect for another's religion.


Serious climbers who do not climb in June will climb some other month of the year. Climbing guides won't lose business, it will average out in the other months. And the park has preserved a multiple use of its resources, only the multiple use isn't simultaneous. Multiple use seldom is. Generally, people don't water-ski and cross-country ski on the same day.


Unfortunately, this ill-conceived lawsuit will have long-lasting, damaging repercussions if the Park Services loses. No sacred site will be protected. And that will shame us all.


In an interview with CNN, broadcast last October, Elaine Quiver, a Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, put it this way: "As long as we have a misunderstanding that my culture is better than yours, we'll never succeed. We'll always be fighting at the base of the Tower and the Tower will be standing forever." n





Charles Levendosky is editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune. He can be reached at 307/266-0619 or e-mail editorial@trib.com. Mountain States Legal Foundation can be reached at 1660 Lincoln St., Suite 2300, Denver CO 80264 (303/861-0244).