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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Mountain States Legal Foundation arrived on the
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
The foundation asks the Wyoming federal
district court to end the climbing ban - even though the ban is
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
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
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'
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.
with spiritual activities at recognized holy sites should be a
violation of First Amendment protection of religious
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
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
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
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
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."
Charles Levendosky is
editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune. He can be reached
at 307/266-0619 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Mountain States Legal
Foundation can be reached at 1660 Lincoln St., Suite 2300, Denver