Natives know it as Mahto Tipila, but its colonizer name of Devils Tower may have come about because of a misinterpreted conversation with an Indian.

No Sympathy for the Devil: Change the Name to Bear Lodge

Steve Russell

Arvol Looking Horse, who needs no introduction in these pages, filed a petition in November 2014 to change the name of Devils Tower back to the traditional name translated to English, Bear Lodge. The Oglalas and approximately 20 other tribes have expressed that they hold Bear Lodge to be sacred and they find naming it for the Adversary to the Abrahamic God to be highly offensive.

The National Park Service agrees that Bear Lodge was the name in common use until Lt. Col. Richard Dodge came to the Black Hills in 1875 to investigate rumors of gold started by George Armstrong Custer as perhaps his last effective blow against the Great Sioux Nation on his way to losing his military reputation and his life at the Greasy Grass.

Gold in the Black Hills would result in the kind of rush to cash in that doomed Cherokee land titles in Georgia and kicked off a genocide in California that stands out among many Indian genocides. Even the colonial courts would find that the gold seekers took the Black Hills in violation of treaty rights and the U.S. would put an inadequate amount of cash in the registry of the federal court to compensate the Sioux, cash that remains untouched to his day because “the Black Hills are not for sale.”

Some speculate that Dodge misheard “Bear Lodge” as “Bad God’s.” I have speculated that someone mistranslated “spirit” as “God.”

RELATED: Names Have Power: The Devil’s in the Details

However the Devil got the Tower, the tribes want it back.

There are actually three naming issues. The names of the mountain and what the National Park Service calls the “populated place” (population 95 on the 2010 Census) are controlled by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The name of Devils Tower National Monument can be changed by Congress or (like Denali in Alaska) by presidential proclamation.

RELATED: ‘The Great One’ Returns: Obama Renames Mount McKinley to Denali

Organizations and individuals have less than a month left to express opinions on taking the mountain away from the Devil and giving it back to Bear. Comments on the Tower and the “populated area,” perhaps pointing out that the Board on Geographic names has a written policy that “supports and promotes the official use of geographic names derived from Native American languages” can be sent to:

Devin Traff

Executive Director Wyoming Board on Geographic Names

Herschler Building

4-E 125 W 25th St

Cheyenne, WY 82002

Lou Yost

Executive Secretary United States Board on Geographic Names

U.S. Geological Survey

523 National Center

Reston, VA 20192

Comments on the name change for Devils Tower National Monument go to your representatives in Congress and to the White House.

Those who believe that names matter can point out that plenty of indigenous names remain in North America. It’s beyond ironic that the name Arvol Looking Horse wants discarded is based on a mistaken belief that Devils Tower was the indigenous name. It’s never too late to correct an error.

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RELATED: Names Have Power: The United States of Indigenous Names

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boujoie's picture
Submitted by boujoie on
My spirit sings! Finally! Resonating with our indigenous roots, ringing out for all to re-member in our DNA. Thank you. Having spent time/space/energy at the tower, i've experienced its power. Would it be possible for someone to help us recall the Bear Story? Thank you. Joie Bourisseau, Anishinaabe Nation, Ojibwe Tribe, enrolled with the Mackinac Band of Chippewa & Ottawa Indians.