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Debate simmers over name of Devils Tower monument in Wyoming

Associated Press Associated Press 4/10/2016 By BOB MOEN, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — When President Theodore Roosevelt designated the country's first national monument 110 years ago, the proclamation inadvertently left out a punctuation mark, and what was supposed to be Devil's Tower became Devils Tower instead.

Some say that's not all it got wrong.

According to local American Indians and others, the landmark's name was based on an incorrect translation and is offensive given the tower's religious significance.

"It hurts us to think about such a beautiful, sacred place called Devils Tower," said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Great Sioux Nation.

Looking Horse has petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of the huge rock butte to Bear Lodge, and has asked the Obama administration to rename the site Bear Lodge National Monument.

Other locals oppose changing the name, saying it's unnecessary and would cause confusion and hurt tourism.

"The truth is, the vast majority of all of the public worldwide recognize it as a landmark, as Devils Tower; they don't see it as an evil thing, as a bad thing," local rancher Ogden Driskill said.

Supporters hope President Barack Obama will change the name during his administration's final months. Obama has used his administration's executive authority to unilaterally rename other geologic features — most notably changing Mount McKinley to Denali in Alaska — and create new national monuments.

Opponents are relying on the state's Republican congressional delegation to continue at least blocking Congress from renaming the monument and the Board on Geographic Names from moving to rename the tower and the nearby community of Devils Tower, which consists of a post office, tourist shops and a campground.

The tower can be seen for miles, standing out like a giant tree stump among surrounding hills. It rises about 865 feet from its rocky base to its relatively flat top, which is about the size of a football field. By comparison, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is 555 feet tall.

Roosevelt designated the monument using powers granted to him in the 1906 Antiquities Act. The monument is maintained by the National Park Service and has become popular with rock climbers.

Depicted in the 1977 movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Devils Tower attracted about 480,000 visitors last year. Among them were American Indians who regularly hold religious services there.

The landmark is a sacred site to at least 26 affiliated tribes, said Tim Reid, monument superintendent.

Many religious ceremonies take place in June, and the Park Service asks climbers to voluntarily refrain from scaling the tower during that month.

"To us, it is a very sacred place. A sacred site that's like a church, a place of worship," Looking Horse said.

According to the Park Service, most maps from 1874 to 1901 marked the tower as Bears Lodge — or in Looking Horse's Lakota language, Mato Tipila. Local tribes have their own legends about how the tower was created, but most involve a bear clawing at a rock while trying to reach people on top of it.

The head of an 1870s Army-led expedition reported local tribes called the site "bad god's tower," which resulted in expedition members settling on the name "Devil's Tower."

However, because there's no historical evidence that tribes associated the monument with bad gods or evil spirits, it is suspected the name given the tower by the expedition was the result of bad translation, according to the Park Service.

Proponents of the name change say the use of "devils" to describe a sacred site is offensive.

However, the Board on Geographic Names has a policy of not acting on petitions to change a feature's name if legislation involving the same feature is pending before Congress, said Lou Yost, the board's executive secretary.

The measure introduced by Wyoming Republican Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis would preserve the Devils Tower name in federal law.

Gov. Matt Mead also opposes the new name, saying "Devils Tower is one of the most recognized names in the National Park Service inventory."

Looking Horse said opposition centers on fears of losing tourist dollars.

"It's all about money, and that's what we are up against in the world today when everything is based on money," he said.

Driskill, who is a state senator, said the monument is among his county's top economic drivers. He contends the effort to change its name is based more on political correctness than religious reasons.

With the board unable to act, proponents of the new name are pinning their hopes on the Obama administration.

The interior secretary can change a geologic feature's title if the Board on Geographic Names fails to act "within a reasonable time," which is not defined. The agency declined to comment about Devils Tower.

Secretary Sally Jewell used the provision to change Mount McKinley to Denali.

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