Devils Tower is an imposing landmark in Wyoming, a natural rock formation that looms 867 feet above the prairie that surrounds it. Native American leaders are calling for the government to rename the national monument, saying its current name is an offensive remnant of colonial history.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, head of the Great Sioux Nation, is leading the effort with the support of a dozen tribes. He has written letters to the president and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Reuters reports, because the name Devils Tower suggests that Native American religious rituals held at the site are tied to devil worship.
He has a point that it encourages a perception of the rock as a sinister place, if Stephen Spielberg's decision to use Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a location with creepy mystic powers is anything to go by.
The formation was named Devils Tower by settlers when Colonel Richard Irving Dodge came across the site on an expedition in 1875, according to the National Parks Service, and his translator managed to misinterpret native names to mean "Bad God's Tower." How he got that from what Native Americans actually call it–Bear Lodge, Bear's Tipi, Home of the Bear, Tree Rock, or Great Gray Horn–is a mystery. But the mistranslated name stuck, especially after the rock was designated a national monument by President Roosevelt in 1906.
Local politicians are not letting go of the name, however offensive it might be to Native Americans. Senators from Wyoming introduced a bill in Congress last week to keep calling the monument Devils Tower, citing potential confusion for locals and tourists if the name changes. Local news outlet County 10 wrote:
U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Representative Cynthia Lummis, all R-Wyo., introduced legislation today to preserve the name of the features at Devils Tower National Monument. As America’s first national monument and an important Wyoming landmark, the delegation said that it was important for Congress to preserve the name “Devils Tower” in statute for the community and the region.
"We've worked very hard to make sure some of the state's assets are easily recognizable to both domestic and international audiences," Chris Mickey, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, told Reuters.
The dispute comes less than a month after President Obama officially changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali to reflect what Native Americans and Alaskan locals call the mountain.