January 05, 2006

The bear and the seven Sioux sisters

The Black Hills, Sioux homeland stolen from its stewards when white men found gold, spill from South Dakota into Wyoming and offer geologic marvels like Devil’s Tower.

Like many visitors to Devil’s Tower, we stayed in Sundance, Wyoming (where we were dazzled by hard-charging teenage rodeo riders at the annual Crook County Fair). You can also nab a bed in nearby Hulett or camp at the Devil’s Tower KOA, down the road from a feverishly busy prairie dog community.

An excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, Chapter 10: OPEN SPACES: Northeast Wyoming, the Dakotas:

To attract tourists, white men gave an astonishing east Wyoming monolith, with a flat top immense enough to host the mother ship of Spielberg’s aliens, the name Devil’s Tower. The Sioux call the rock column Bear Lodge.

In Sioux legend, this pillar of land thrust itself from the earth in time to lift seven frightened maidens beyond reach of a hungry bear. The great earth column rose, and carried the maidens to safety. The bear clawed at the monolith as it rose, and the long, vertical claw marks now run from Bear Lodge’s flat top to its wooded bottom, and around its entire circumference.

The Sioux also explain the genesis of a piece of night sky through the Bear Lodge legend. The column of land that held the seven frightened maidens rose higher and kept climbing until the maidens were delivered to the heavens, where they became the constellation Pleiades – the Seven Sisters.

The crowds hadn’t yet rolled in when we made our one mile-and-change hike around the base of Devil’s Tower through a landscape covered with boulders and rock pillars heaved over eons from the tower’s sides to the Ponderosa pine forest below. Six climbers had secured permits to pass beyond the boulder field at the tower’s base and try for the summit, and they were part of this singular scene. There was a moment in the sylvan forest that hugged the green, lichen-tinged monolith when I looked on two worlds at once.

Up and to my left, I watched a tiny figure, clad in and hanging from new technology, inch his way up the tower’s vertical wall. I looked down and to the right, and saw a tree hung with Native American prayer cloths and prayer bundles filled with offerings of cedar, sweet grasses, and sacred tobacco. On my left, people said, “I’m human. I respect but can conquer you.” On my right, people said, “I’m human. I respect and worship you.”