Mountain Legends and Folklore: Devils Tower, Wyoming, USA

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Devil’s Tower, Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming has a familiar look about it for many people who watched the classic 1974 sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  That is because it was the place that people desperately tried to reach to rendezvous with the giant alien spacecraft.  It is situated in Crook County in the Bear Lodge Mountains which is part of the Black Hills and not far from Sundance and Hulett in the north eastern part of Wyoming and rises to a height of 5,112 feet above sea level.  In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national park.  It was named Devil’s Tower in 1875 when an interpreter working for an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge who mistakenly interpreted a Native American name for it as “Bad God’s Tower”.   The Native Americans have several names for it including, Bear’s House, Bear’s Tipi, Bear’s Lodge and many others and features in many myths, legends and traditions.

Native American Folklore

The Kiowa and the Lakota people have a legend that tells how it originated.  This tells how a group of young girls were out playing when they came across several gigantic bears who on seeing then gave chase.  To escape the bears the girls climbed to the top of the summit and got down on their knees and prayed to the Great Spirit.   The Great Spirit heard their prayers and caused the rock to rise up from the ground towards the sky out of the reach of the bears. The bears tried to climb up to get them and dug their claws in the rock to gain a grip but kept sliding down because it was too steep for them to climb.  Their claws scratched the straight vertical marks that are seen to this day in the sides of the massive rock tower.  As the tower reached the sky the girls were transformed into a group of stars that are now called the Pleiades.

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Devil’s Tower, or Bear Lodge – Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Sioux Legend

One day two young Sioux boys roamed far from their village when they had the bad luck to come across Mato the bear. Mato was a gigantic bear who had massive sharp claws on his front paws.  As soon as he saw the boys he became intent on catching and eating them and chased after them.  Although the boys ran fast Mato ran faster and as he was about to pounce the boys prayed to the Great Spirit for help.   He heard their prayer and caused a great tower of rock to rise out of the ground underneath the boys who were lifted up beyond the reach of Mato who left his claw marks the sides of the tower of rock trying to climb up to get at them.   Eventually, tired and frustrated he sauntered off to look for an easier meal and eventually rested at a place now called Bear Butte.

The Cheyenne Legend

In a Cheyenne version of the legend a group of girls are chased by giant bears and most of them are killed.  Two sisters manage to escape and make it back to their village but the bear has followed them there.  The girls tell their brothers that the bear can only be killed by an arrow shot through the underside of its paw.  The brothers tell their sisters to lead it to Devil’s Tower and trick it into thinking they had climbed up it to escape.  This they did and the bear attempted to climb the rock tower clawing at its face but each time it slips down leaving its claw marks. As the bear is trying to climb the brothers are shooting arrows at its paws and eventually one arrow comes close to its mark scaring the bear off and the arrow continued to fly higher and higher and never came down.

The Northern Cheyenne Legend

There is a Northern Cheyenne legend which tells how a man fell asleep at the bottom of the tower of rock next to the head of a buffalo head.  In the morning when he woke up he discovered both he and the buffalo head by some unknown magic had been transported to the top of the rock.  Looking all around her could for see for miles in all directions but could see no way down.  He had no choice other than stay where was for another another day and night with no food or water.  So he spent the day praying and then went to sleep.  When he woke up the next morning  he had returned to the base of the massive rock where he has first gone to sleep.   According to legend the buffalo’s head could be still be seen on high by using a telescope and in those days the Devil’s Tower had never been climbed so there was no logical explanation as to how it got there.  The buffalo head had special significance to the Northern Cheyenne.  It was there practice in their camps to keep a sacred teepee dedicated to the Great Medicine where they kept the sacred objects of the people.  The sacred object of the Northern Cheyenne was a buffalo head which makes the story more significant for them.

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Bear by Pexels – Pixabay – Pixabay License

The Legend of Mato the Bear

Another legend tells how two young boys playing in the sagebrush on the great prairie.  They had been shooting arrows seeing how far they could fire them and roamed further and further from home.  As they were having fun they heard a noise like a small animal would make and went to investigate.   Creeping along in the direction came from they found a stream of fast running water that flowed over a bed of many colored pebbles.   The boys followed it for a while and came across a herd of deer, which they just had to track for a while.  After tracking the deer for a while they realized they were hungry and decided to return home, but realized they had no idea which way to go.  They decided to go in one direction but this only took them further and further from their home village.

As the day wore on the boys grew tired and finding a tree went to sleep under its branches.  The next morning they woke and still had no idea which way was home but chose to head west.  They managed to find berries and roots which ket them from starving and they slaked their thirst from the streams of clear water they crossed. For the next three days they continued walking into the west and despite being tired and footsore they found enough wild food and water to survive on.  They desperately wished their parents or their older brothers and sisters would turn up and find them but no one came.

On the fourth day the boys began to feel nervous and realized they were being tracked.  Although the boys had wanted to be found they wanted it to be by their family or friends or by someone who could help them, but they knew that this was no friend tracking them but Mato the bear.  Mato was a bear of gargantuan stature and so big both the boys together would be nothing but a snack to it.  He had picked up the scent of the boys from afar and followed it and was now hot on their trail and approaching fast.  Seeing him approach the boys ran off as fast as they could look for a place to hide but there was nowhere.  The giant bear was much faster than they and was rapidly catching them up and in their fear they stumbled.  He reared above them and they saw his great red maw full of sharp teeth and his hot breath was like a flame.   The boys had been taught about the Great Spirit and how to pray and called upon him to save them.  As Mato was about to strike the earth trembled and rose taking the boys high into the sky out of reach of the great bear.

The boys found themselves on tower of rock that kept rising higher and higher.  The boys looked all around and could see they were high above the ground and below them was the angry bear.  Mato had long sharp claws like steel and tried to climb up the rock tower after the boys but although he dug his claws in he kept slipping down.  As he slipped he left great grooves in the rock face from his claws that can be seen today.  Eventually he gave up and wandered off looking for easier game.    The boys were hundreds of feet in the air and could see the countryside for miles around and wondered how they could get down but they could see no way.  Wanblee the great eagle, who was a friend of their people saw him and came and carried them back safely to their people and they told them the marvelous tale of their escape from Mato the bear.

© 09/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 8th, 2017 zteve t evans

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