Main Street, Wyoming; 707; Sacred Sites
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Many of the places around Wyoming inspire us which is why thousands of tourists from around the world come here to see our magnificent scenery.
But some of these places are more than natural wonders.
They hold a very special meaning for American Indians. Join us on Main Street Wyoming where we'll be on location at Devil's Tower and the medicine wheel. We'll be learning more about these sites which are considered sacred by American Indians. And we'll be asking can they be managed when there are competing interests. Sure. In 1906 President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed Devil's Tower our country's first national monument. Today tourists from around the world visit this unique core of rock which rises eight hundred and sixty seven feet from its base. Since its inclusion in the popular movie Close Encounters of the third kind visitation the Devil's Tower has risen dramatically over 450000 people annually stop to see this geologic wonder. The medicine wheel located in the Bighorn National Forest was designated a national historic landmark in 1970. It is estimated to have been built between twelve hundred and seven thousand eight hundred eighty. And it's found above timber line at the top of Madison mountain. It is annually viewed by around 18000 visitors. These two sites are part of a national debate with. Proponents on both sides. In the Med. We all are considered sacred by American Indians. But what does that mean and how does it impact the way these federally owned lands are to be managed.
Our basically I think you know my perspective of what the people in Wyoming at least in northeastern Wyoming and I know are people that strongly uphold individual rights.
And what's happening here Devil's Tower is a slaughter by the federal government and an erosion of the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights which is part of our Constitution.
If there is no respect if there is no move through mutual respect there is continued disgrace. Could Do you disagree some of these sacred space and he's not.
We won't question American Indians when they say the tower is sacred.
Just as we won't question climbers when they say the tower is a premier technical quote here when we take those folks at their word.
We've gotten some direction from the executive branch of the government that's really all we have. What we're doing up here is sort of treading new ground and working together with everyone to make it happen there really is no set of guidelines or rules or regulations on how you manage a sacred site we're working through this with all the parties.
Of 1996 President Clinton signed an executive order instructing federal land managers that they are to accommodate access to ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners. And. Avoided Bursley affecting the physical integrity of sacred sites. The story of those places held sacred by American Indians is a complicated one. Numerous tribes populate the western plains and mountains.
And each has its own set of beliefs and traditional ways of practicing those beliefs. Their history and culture has been passed from one generation to the next orally. And is often not understood by the outside world.
The archaeological evidence in some cases will be rather obvious like the medicine wheel or something and it doesn't fit in any other category except ceremonial or religiously. We just know that it has that aspect there are certain features that clearly indicate this is a sacred site of some sort. Big or small and then otherwise in some sites many areas that the evidence is very difficult to come up with because there is no real physical evidence but only the knowledge of the people themselves. But I can tell you this that they're very serious about it. It is very much of a church to him and him do that kind of respect I think.
Several tribes share similar stories of the origin of what they call Bear Lodge.
There are seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb. He trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws and his body was covered with for directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified. They ran in the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree in the tree spoke to them. He bade them climb upon it and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and the bark all around with it. The seven sisters were born into the sky and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.
You have to realize that for 500 years our country has been programmed to say that in the Indian culture doesn't count.
We travel to the medicine wheel to visit with members of the group which has been meeting to resolve the management conflicts facing this sacred site.
Nicole Price explains why local people have previously not witnessed American Indians practicing their religion at these places.
When Indian people were put on reservations. The head of those reservations were Bureau of Indian Affairs person. And at one point in time they were part of the military.
They had their their word was law. So to speak and the whole thing was you assimulate the unions. You take away the religion. And you do it with any means you can. And so there were laws passed. The downside was passed in. Early 1800s it basically said that Indians cannot practice their religions in any shape way or form. In you people had to have a green card to get off the reservation. The only person who could sign that was the agent. So you didn't leave the reservation to go and practice your religion.
The Native Americans in were accused of writing this bandwagon because they didn't talk like that in the past well they didn't advertise to everybody when they went to church they just went up there.
Their religion is very like one person may come and he can vision quest and that's his religion. It's only a you know it's not like you have a body of like the Methodists. That's not what religion is about. So there's a very different way of looking at them. So not until 1978 when the Native American Religious Freedom Act was passed didn't unions even know or believe that they could leave the reservations and that they had a right to come back to places like this.
There is increasing American Indian interest in the tower starting from in 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. In 1981 there was a major Indian encampment here starting in 1985. Sundance has been held here annually. The number of group requests that the park has handled from American Indian groups for vision quest and sweats has increased dramatically. The sacred hoop runners 100 young runners that do run the sacred hoop around the Black Hills come each year so from an agency perspective there's an increasing use of the tower by American Indians. Thank you very much.
In addition to being a tourist attractions the medicine wheel and Devil's Tower have been places of special significance for local residents for many generations.
We spoke with you let's count council member rod Hancock about Devil's Tower for us we have a lot of our local people are many generations of settlers you know they were some of the first settlers into the area we have several families that boast of seven generations. Of family members that have lived in and around the tower. And for them this monument becomes their marker and their identity of who they are and where they are because we're so small out here in the northeastern part of Wyoming.
That will start self as a big bang. I don't think we need to have you know probably a tenth of the traffic if it wasn't for Devil's Tower. Obviously we're not a destination point but anybody that goes from Rushmore until Yellowstone if they can fit in the time always you know stops and.
I think the U.S. does have the site for religious purposes is really fairly recent It's more of a modern Indian belief the first Sundance that we know of that we have documented took place in 1984. Previous to that time in any of the journals in any of our history books that we have any of the writings from the military that were in the area we have no documentation that the Indians visited here for religious purpose.
I think that Conny is real receptive to the Indians if they you know if they would like to come here and worship. And that's not a problem. Schools own this property and they they're very receptive to them. They let them camp on their land and they can't pick the cherry boughs in the national park so they let him pick them here on their land and the whole part of the county as far as I'm concerned is you know receptive. It's no big deal.
I think as a whole most people are quite concerned. They're concerned with where does it stop. Most feel like we live out here in an independent state and have tried to be amenable to everyone's rights and everyone's freedom to to do what they can do legally. And so I believe local feeling is that the native tribes are more than welcome to come and have their religious ceremony but allow other people to come in and do what they enjoy doing as well.
It is also a Christian pastor. And spoke to us about the concept of sacred sites from a Christian perspective.
We would look at a holy site or a sacred site as a place where some great religious event took place a place where there was ongoing religious activity a place where someone else possibly would call this is holy. And so in our UCG we we could allow the Indians even if they would say on a religious significance right now that this is holy to them. We would be willing to say yes that probably is true. So we don't have a problem with that terminology what happens with our religious sites I believe is what becomes most important from there.
The medicine wheel became a focus of concern for local residents. American Indians and the U.S. Forest Service in 1998 Mary Randolph the Madison will district ranger described the situation at that time.
We started out with a timber sale in this area. We were looking at doing some timber sales within the view shed of the medicine wheel. And so back in 88 the district ranger that was here at that time had brought a group of Native Americans up to show them the timber sale and they happened to do the meeting right up at the wheel. And while we were standing up there and talking about the timber sales somebody turned says well what about the medicine wheel. What are you going to do to protect the wheel. Well we were going to do well do a management plan. You know we'll figure out how to protect it we'll start to do some developments up here. And we were also getting a lot of tourists that were coming up at that time too. So in our infamous wisdom back at that time you know people make the best decisions they can at the time and we thought the thing to do was to do management up there. We looked at building a visitor's center so we could explain to people what the medicine wheel was all about looked at improving the roads and the access to the wheel sanitation facilities all those kinds of things that would make it more of a developed facility. So that's kind of what got us started because the Native Americans up there's a world that's not what we really wanted. And we kind of well we didn't know that because we didn't take the time to find out what anybody really wanted up there we thought we knew the best for service at that point had a plan to shrink the national historic landmark down to 80 feet.
That is the circle itself. Right now there's like two or three hundred acres and a national landmark status. So that involves not just the Forest Service but things like the Park Service and so forth they proposed to reduce that down to 80 feet for the reasons that that would give them the management go ahead to develop the site itself they had plans for viewing towers because a tourist complained that they couldn't see it well enough in their snapshot. They're going to put parking lots and paths in interpretive signs and so forth. I guess in a certain sense I sort of blew the whistle on that when I got a small contract through the Park Service and went up there and said their pronouncement that there was no other archaeology associated with the medicine was not correct. There are big trail systems going up there that almost certainly are there are villages of teetering campsites that may or may not be associated with it. But until we know that the national historic landmark boundaries were very appropriate that spring we had met with the Forest Service and shared in a couple of times.
And decided that the Forest Service had absolutely no idea that their section with all six responsibilities were that they were to meet with union people that this was a sacred area. And we set up the first meeting in 88 with the Forest Service from Sheridan. And five union people. And they consider that historic event with the Forest Service because they had never talked to an Indian person before.
Throughout these past decades this medicine medicine mountain has been Creek wanted by tourists and. People did not really understand what this place was all about. The best way that I can put it is that it would be. It would have been synonymous with the church burnings that have been going on the desecration that was going on for quite some time and we realized that we had really three entities that were involved and we had ourselves as the land managers.
We had different Native American groups and individuals that were very concerned with what we were doing. And we also had the big horn base in the community of level. And that area down there because they were very interested in this area as a tourist attraction and also because they had been the ones that had been protecting it for the last hundred years they're the ones that got the designation is the national historic landmark. You know they were the ones that originally got the fence built around it to protect it so they have been very concerned about what had been happening up here too.
I mean there were some really ugly meetings that we've had where there was been a lot of conflict between a lot of different people. But through the nine years you know we all learn from each other and the education was there. And because of that you know we just we just had to keep working forward and putting together agreements and working forward and putting together agreements. And we all haven't come up with what we really wanted but I think we've all learned to respect one another. I think we've all learned that there are differences among us and we've had to kind of put them in the background and say what is best for the land space. And I think you know at least for our group I think that's been our main focus is. We have to keep the best interests of the mountain at heart not maybe what our goals would be.
We also learn from each other. The people in the communities the basin community and us from the Forest Service we spend a lot of time with the Native Americans now and we've got a better understanding of what this place actually means to them. And I don't think we had that before. I don't think we understood that we didn't open up our ears and really listen to them.
Well I think the interpretation the on site president tempers. Creasy awareness. But not only that the.
Public relations the relationship between federal agencies tribes state agencies and the educational process that has taken place but course it has only taken nearly a decade to get to this point and there is still a considerable amount of work that needs to be done.
In 1991 the National Park Service Director James Parks. Was significant climbing activities to develop management plans. Devil's Tower the premier crack mining place in the country was among the 30 parts to implement this directive.
It's important to understand that what's unique to Devils Tower is that the conflict here related to climbing is recreational climbing in conflict with traditional cultural use. Devil's Tower is the only unit in the National Park Service of those 30 where this most significant issue about climbing was climbing on what is to American Indians a sacred site. In other parks and monuments it was mostly bolting chalk human use trails litter those kinds of issues. But here it's recreation in conflict with traditional cultural use.
Andy peach the fish who owns tower guides at Devils Tower. Has been climbing for 26 years.
There's lots of different aspects. I mean you can go on.
You know almost anywhere and there's emotion involved in calling in a lot of people get into that aspect of and it's really comparable to like a martial art or some kind of practice where you're refining your movement and you're. Basically integrate all the aspects of being physical and mental and spiritual as a human. And climbing is really demanding on all those levels.
Devil's Tower is probably the best crack in the world bar none and you know there are no other cracks in the world that I know of on such a abundant number of them not spaced too far apart where they run for you know two three hundred feet.
Just perfect columns and cracks you know without any big foothold or even some of them have no resting spots at all.
A group was formed to address the competing interests of Devil's Tower. And by 1995 the Park Service had completed their draft climbing management plan that draft plan included six alternatives ranging from.
Absolutely no climbing on the tower to at the other extreme. Absolutely unrestricted climbing the National Park Service is preferred alternative was a mid ground alternative that called for a voluntary closure to climbing in June.
The cause called for a cross-cultural education programme that called for no new bolting but permitting replacement of existing bolts that called for new Raptor protections and that call for clean Heimer guidelines.
Well we went through the public scoping part of the climbing plan where they have to do the NEPA process and they call for public input. And there were quite a few comrades of mine that were really guides or anything with their lawyers and knew and did research on the topic itself and knew that closing Devils Tower out of respect for American Indian religion was against the First Amendment to the Constitution so there were a large number of us that wrote in and during the public comment period asking the Park Service and even the for the public comment period not to close the tower because it was against the law and they didn't listen to us.
The plan is conflict negotiation. It is a compromise not everyone got everything they wanted but everyone got something that they wanted and the plans working here on the ground in the first year we had 85 percent compliance rate from the climbing community for the voluntary closure. We had very few requests for replacement bolting.
We had positive comments from the American Indian community about fewer quiet murders fewer bolts being pounded in to a sacred altar.
But in March of this year March of 1906 the Bear Lodge multiple use Association and a commercial guide sued us for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
They came out with the voluntary closure which is in the plan which really isn't voluntary because they state that people can choose whether or not to climb in June but for the voluntary closure to remain in effect there has to be 100 percent compliance which means nobody climbs.
So voluntary closure could then become mandatory as stated in the plan. And they also instituted a mandatory ban on commercial guarding which means that anybody that wanted to hire a commercial guide like myself on the tower green the month of June could. So that part of that also wasn't voluntary for you know any aspects of someone who wants to have a safe enjoyable cawing you know could arrange and also I can't work and run my business.
We simply restricted the month of June from climbing for profit because of the voluntary closure because of the emphasis of the American Indian community on the sacredness of the tower and because of the special activities that take place around that time period. And we were sued in part for from this commercial climber for violating his opportunities to make a profit. And in the preliminary injunction stage the federal judge upheld his claim and forced me to issue a commercial use license.
My individual freedoms which include which include the government not establishing religion. Are they protect me as an individual and my lawyers also think that they protect business interests.
Well the debates regarding treatment of sacred sites reach into the foundations of our country. Constitutional issues still to be interpreted and decided by the highest courts. Some have suggested the possibility of splitting the usage of the tower in the month of June. That is limiting climbing to one side and ceremonial use to the other.
It's not just seeing people on the tower but it's knowing people are on the tower and and that the presence of those outside and to them sacrilegious elements have a direct impact on the efficacy of their ceremonies. And so it's important that no one be on the object not just not simply out of sight. On the object but. Not on the object.
I think that. There is going to have to be a considerable amount of educational effort.
By Native Americans to continue to have their sacred sites protected.
And there has to be a common understanding that these are indeed places of worship.
The groups that worked on this are very diverse groups. And we have learned to come together for the betterment of all of us. Not just one group. And I think that those things should mean an awful lot to the communities around here.
My main thing is as a live living example at least to this point is that you can fight back and the apathy will kill people in Wyoming and will kill the Wyoming way of life. And that's mainly what I would like people in Wyoming to know is that you can fight back the federal government and it's not fine. It's not easy. But if you really believe in your way of life you need to do it.
There are extremes on both sides both in the American Indian community and the climbing community that want it all. But this is a shared public resource and this is a plan that's based on mutual respect.
I encourage people to come up to the site come see what we've done up here and how we've made it work for people to be able to visit the site see the site learn from it yet accommodate a need and that the Native Americans have to use this as their their sacred site in their ceremonial place of worship. A.
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This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- Main Street, Wyoming
- Episode Number
- Sacred Sites
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- Wyoming PBS
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- Wyoming PBS (Riverton, Wyoming)
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- This episode focuses on the debate surrounding two Wyoming national historic landmarks: Devil's Tower and the Medicine Wheel. Interviews with local American Indians and federal employees reveal a debate with two sides: those who believe the government should retain full management, and those who wish to keep the landmarks sacred and Indian-controlled.
- "Main Street, Wyoming is a documentary series exploring aspects of Wyoming's local history and culture."
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- Main Street, Wyoming is a production of Wyoming Public Television 1996 KCWC-TV
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Director: Nicholoff, Kyle
Editor: Nicholoff, Kyle
Executive Producer: Nicholoff, Kyle
Host: Hammons, Deborah
Producer: Hammons, Deborah
Producing Organization: Wyoming PBS
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Wyoming PBS (KCWC)
Identifier: 3-0343 (WYO PBS)
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- Chicago: “Main Street, Wyoming; 707; Sacred Sites,” 1996-11-14, Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_260-42n5tgf3.
- MLA: “Main Street, Wyoming; 707; Sacred Sites.” 1996-11-14. Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_260-42n5tgf3>.
- APA: Main Street, Wyoming; 707; Sacred Sites. Boston, MA: Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_260-42n5tgf3