The Devils Tower commands two chapters in my latest novel, BACK ON THE BIKE PATH. Here is the Lakota legend about the tower, which is also known as Matȟó Thípila—the Bear Lodge. It first ran in 2017.
In a time long past (in a place now called South Dakota), some Lakota boys became lost on the prairie. They had wandered far from their village, having shot their arrows a great distance with each pull of their bows. They had tracked animals, and they had also followed a stream for a while. From a hilltop they spotted a herd of antelope and of course ran after them.
When their stomachs told them it was time for dinner they decided to go home, but the boys soon realized that they had no idea where they were. The direction in which they chose to walk only took them farther away from their village. Finally, growing weary, they set up camp amid some trees and slept.
The next morning they kept on walking west, once again in the wrong direction. They did not want for water due to the many streams they crossed, or food, for they found wild berries and dug up turnips. But a second day passed, and a third, and still the boys could not find their village. Where were their parents, their brothers and sisters, or anyone else of their tribe? Surely someone must be looking for them!
As they walked along on the fourth day (in what is now northeastern Wyoming), the boys suddenly realized that something followed them. There, far to their rear, they saw it: Matȟó, the bear! But not just any bear. No, Matȟó was huge, so big that these tiny humans would hardly satisfy his hunger. Still, he came after them with giant strides, and as he neared the boys, they felt the ground quake. They began to run, all the time searching for a place where they could hide, but they saw nothing.
Finally, near exhaustion, they fell to the ground. Matȟó came nearer, and as he roared they could see his mouthful of sharp teeth and smell his warm breath. Having learned the ways of their people well, the boys hastily prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, saying, “Tunkashila (Grandfather), please save us!”
All of a sudden the earth shook even more, and this time not from the footsteps of Matȟó. The ground beneath them began to rise, taking the boys up with it. A cone of rock poked through the earth and rose higher, higher, even higher, until it stood over a thousand feet above the prairie. The boys, stunned by what had happened, gazed down from the top of it.
Matȟó could not believe that his hoped-for meal had been thrust up to the clouds. The huge bear now stood on his hind legs to try and reach the top of the rock, but he fell just short. He dug his giant claws into the rock, making deep scratches on every side of it as he struggled to reach the boys, but every attempt saw him slide down. Again and again he tried, but always with the same results.
Finally, exhausted from his efforts, Matȟó decided that this small snack atop the rock was just not worth it. He ambled off and, after a glance behind him and one last growl of frustration, his huge body faded in the distance.
The boys were both happy and relieved to escape the jaws of Matȟó. But as they celebrated, a thought suddenly occurred to them: how were they supposed to get off this towering rock? Then, they looked to the sky and saw Wanblee, the eagle, a good friend to the Lakota. So, Wakan Tanka still watched out for them! The eagle gently lifted the boys off the top of the rock and carried them swiftly to their village, where their families joyfully welcomed them home. The great rock, Matȟó Thípila—the Bear Lodge—stands on the prairie to this day.
Quite a few tribes hold the Devils Tower sacred, and each culture has a variation of the Lakota legend. In 2005 and 2014 petitions were entered to change the name of the Devils Tower National Monument to the Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark. Both attempts were unsuccessful.