Federal Committee Recommends Renaming Devils Tower To Bear Lodge

A federal committee has recommended that the Sec. of Interior change the name of Devils Tower to Bear Lodge. She can't, however, because Wyoming is the only state exempt from the Antiquities Act. Only an act of Congress could do so.

Andrew Rossi

June 24, 20246 min read

Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming.
Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming. (Getty Images)

On-again, off-again efforts to rename Devils Tower to Bear Lodge is on again with a federal naming committee pushing for the change.

The federal Reconciliation in Place Names Committee, a subcommittee of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, is recommending Secretery of the Interior Deb Haaland submit a request to the Biden administration to change the name of "the sacred geographic feature in Wyoming known as 'Devils Tower'" and the unincorporated community surrounding it to Bear Lodge, which is what it was called by American Indians before it was Devils Tower.

The push comes after the committee’s last meeting June 10-11 in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Futhermore, the committee suggests Haaland can bypass Biden altogether because she has authority to rename America’s first national monument just as her DOI has renamed hundreds of other geographic features with names derogatory to American Indians and other groups.

Renaming the nation's first national monument has been a divisive issue for a while. Wyomingites who have spent decades living their lives within sight of the massive monolith of rock feel their concerns are being overlooked in the debate.

"They try to do these name changes behind the scenes with no input from the people who are directly impacted," Wyoming Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, told Cowboy State Daily. "My family's been in this corner of Wyoming for eight generations, and they treat us like somebody that just came off the turnip truck from New York.”

Recommendation Rationale

The committee's recommendation says more than 20 tribes "with close association to the site" find the name Devils Tower "offensive." The recommendation claims all 20 tribes support the renaming proposal, although the tribes are not listed in the recommendation.

The committee urges Haaland to "take action" to rename Devils Tower as Bear Lodge, suggesting she has unilateral authority to do so. The recommendation claims the Secretary of the Interior can rename a geographic feature if the U.S. Board of Geographic Names "does not act within a reasonable time" when a proposal is submitted.

Citing an unresolved proposal to rename Devils Tower submitted more than 10 years ago, and the support of the 20 tribes, the committee says the Department of the Interior can act.

No timeline is included in the recommendation, nor is there a discussion of a legislative process for the change.

‘Disingenuous And Wrong’

Driskill said his family has been living and working the land adjacent to the national monument nearly as long as any Indigenous tribe that would consider it a sacred site. He described the recommendation to rename Devils Tower as "unbelievably offensive" to himself and many other Wyomingites.

"Our family's been here as long as anybody," he said. "Our family's intertwined with the tower since before it became a national monument, and it's just unbelievably offensive to me that they face down our family and pay absolutely no attention to the people that neighbor two sides of the monument."

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as the first national in 1906. The name came from the diaries of geologist and mapmaker Henry Newton, who designated the massive pillar of rock while exploring the Black Hills with the U.S. Army in 1875.

Bear Lodge is the most common name among the tribes that lived near Devils Tower before the first contact with white settlers. Other tribal names include Bear's House, Bear's Lodge, Home of the Bear and Bear's Lair.

Driskill has no objection to highlighting the controversial history of the monument's name "as a footnote," but he is opposed to renaming Devils Tower on principle and Bear Lodge specifically.

"For them to pick Bear Lodge is just as wrong as it is to have Devils Tower," he said. "Those 20 tribes all have different names for the tower. To pick one tribe over another tribe for the name, known nationwide and forever as Devils Tower, is disingenuous and wrong. It makes no sense to offend one group to acquiesce to another group."

The committee recommends the Department of the Interior "engage with the local community to develop an alternate name for the associated unincorporated populated place if Bear Lodge is not supported."

Driskill said that's the least they should do and something they deliberately haven't done.

Devils tower lightning 8 1 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Federal Fracus

The prospect of renaming Devils Tower has a long history of proactive protection from Wyoming's congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis took up the torch from late Sen. Mike Enzi when she introduced a bill to prevent the name change of Devils Tower National Monument during the 117th Congress in 2021.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso cosponsored Lummis' bill. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January 2021 but failed to progress further.

In response to this latest recommendation, Lummis told Cowboy State Daily that she remains firmly opposed to renaming Devils Tower.

"As the first national landmark, Devils Tower holds great significance to generations of people across Wyoming and is one of the Cowboy State's most iconic sights," she said. "We should not allow D.C. bureaucrats to unnecessarily change the name of this famous and cherished landmark."

Lummis also noted that President Biden would need to use the Antiquities Act to rename Devils Tower and such sweeping presidential authority isn't possible in Wyoming.

In the aftermath of the bitter battle over the establishment of Grand Teton National Park in the 1940s, Wyoming received an exemption from the presidential power of the Antiquities Act.

Under Title 54 of U.S. Code regarding American Antiquities, "no extension or establishment of national monuments in Wyoming may be undertaken except by express authorization of Congress."

Other Wyoming Name Changes

The Reconciliation in Place Names Committee also submitted a list of 144 other geographic features across the United States with "potentially derogatory" names compiled during its meeting in Rapid City. The list includes dozens of creeks and lakes including the word "papoose," an English word derived from the Algonquin term for a child or cradle board.

There is a Papoose Lake in the Popo Agie Wilderness west of Lander and two Papoose Creeks elsewhere in Wyoming. The committee recommended renaming all three geographic features but didn't include recommendations for new names.

Inquiries to the Department of the Interior about whether Haaland would consider the committee’s recommendation to rename the monument were not responded to before this story was published.

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.