A view of Mato Tipila, or Bear Lodge, in Wyoming. Photo: David Kingham

Republican bill blunts Native efforts to change name at sacred site

Republican lawmakers are once again trying to protect the namesake of Devils Tower National Monument even though tribal leaders and advocates have called for change.

The iconic geologic feature in Wyoming is considered sacred to the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Lakota peoples. Tribal citizens continue to make pilgrimages there to offer prayers and conduct ceremonies.

But a mistranslation of Mato Tipila, which means "Bear Lodge" in the Lakota language, led to the name "Devils Tower" for the sacred site and for the monument itself, which was the first ever declared under the Antiquities Act more than a century ago.

"Indigenous people have for over a century repeatedly stated that the 1906 'Devils Tower' name is not the correct translation of the rock’s name and that the Devils Tower name is offensive because it equates cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to 'devil worship,' in essence equating indigenous people to 'devils,'" Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations, said in an 2015 application to change the name.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body, took comments on Looking Horse's petition and consulted tribes, who supported the recognition of "Bear Lodge" as the name for the site. But due to an internal policy that bars changes while legislation is pending, no action was ever taken.

History is repeating itself with H.R.401. The bill, introduced by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) in January 2017, bars Devils Tower from being known as anything but Devils Tower.

Even though the measure never got a hearing in the 115th Congress, it's bound to clear the House Committee on Natural Resources at a markup session next week. And while it may not ever advance to the full House either, its existence alone is enough to prevent action if Looking Horse, or anyone else, were to revive the name change campaign.

The name change effort, though, has its limits. Only Congress can alter the name of a national monument, according to the National Park Service.

The president could also take action though that's unlikely with Donald Trump in charge. Looking Horse had hoped Barack Obama, who recognized the Native name of Denali in Alaska, would have taken action before he left office, but that didn't happen.

However, the Board on Geographic Names could adopt a new name for the geologic feature "Devils Tower," as well as for the surrounding area, which is known as "Devils Tower, Wyoming."

The markup on H.R.401 takes place at 10:15am Eastern on Wednesday, March 14 in Room 1324 of Longworth House Office Building. The session will be webcast.

A companion bill, S.70, has been introduced in the Senate. It has not received a hearing and has not been scheduled for a markup at this point.

House Committee on Natural Resource Notice:
Full Committee Markup (March 14, 2018)

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