Devils Tower Legends and History

Devils Tower Rock Climbing

The Devils Tower legends and early history - how it got its name, and how it was formed as told by the American Indian Tribes.

Wyoming is an incredible place and Devils Tower is part of what makes it “like no other place on earth”, (according to the Wyoming entrance signs and license plates).  Devils Tower was made famous in modern times by the 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but for many moons before that, tribal people had been visiting it, and regarded the area as a sacred site.  The legends surrounding the Tower are many, and the stories were no doubt passed down through the generations around the fire.

Many tribes from all over America consider the site of Devils Tower to be sacred.  “Devils Tower” is a name the white man gave the formation.  It was named in 1875 when a mis-interpretation from Colonel Richard Irving Dodge’s expedition somehow translated the native name as “Bad God’s Tower,” and this eventually led to the name Devils Tower.  As a side note, what should have been Devil’s Tower got to be Devils Tower by a simple clerical error that is now etched into history.

The Tower also has many tribal names.  The Lakota Indians have their own names for it such as Mato Tipila, which means “Bear Lodge.”  Other names from other American Indian tribes are Grey Horn Butte, He Hota Paha, Bear Rock or Bear Mountain, Tree Rock, and Grizzly Bear Lodge to list a few.  The bear theme comes from a common story about Devils Tower.  The Legend of its creation goes something like this…

Long ago, two young Indian boys found themselves lost on the great prairie. They had played together one afternoon and had wandered far out of the village.  Then they had shot their bows still farther out into the sagebrush. Then they had heard a small animal make a noise and had gone to investigate.  They had come to a stream with many colorful pebbles and followed that for a while.  They had come to a hill and wanted to see what was on the other side.  On the other side they saw a herd of antelope and, of course, had to track them for a while.  When they got hungry and thought it was time to go home, the two boys found that they didn’t know where they were.  They started off in the direction where they thought their village was, but only got farther and farther away from it.  At last they curled up beneath a tree and went to sleep.  They got up the next morning and walked some more, still traveling the wrong way.  They ate some wild berries and dug up wild turnips, found some chokecherries, and drank water from streams.  For three days they walked toward the west.  They were footsore, but they survived.  How they wished that their parents, or elder brothers and sisters or tribe members would find them as they walked on what is now the plains of Wyoming.  But nobody did.

On the fourth day the boys suddenly had a feeling that they were being followed.  They looked around and in the distance saw Mato, the bear.  This was no ordinary bear, but a giant bear, so huge that the boys would make only a small mouthful for him.  He had smelled the boys and came in search of that mouthful.  He came so close that the earth trembled with each step he took.

The boys started running, looking for a place to hide, they found none.  The grizzly was much, much faster than they.  They stumbled, and the bear was almost upon them.  They could see his red, wide-open jaws full of enormous teeth. They could smell his hot breath.

The boys were old enough to have learned to pray, and they called upon Wakan Tanka, the Creator: “Tunkashila, Grandfather, have pity, save us.”  All at once the earth shook and began to rise.  The boys rose with it.  Out of the earth came a cone of rock going up, up, up until it rose more than a thousand feet high. And the boys were on top of it.

Mato the bear was disappointed to see his meal disappearing into the clouds. This grizzly was so huge that he could almost reach to the top of the rock when he stood on his hind legs.  Almost, but not quite.  His claws were as large as a tipi’s lodge poles.  Frantically Mato dug his claws into the side of the rock, trying to get up, trying to eat those boys.  As he did so, he made big scratches in the sides of the towering rock.  He tried every spot, every side.  He scratched up the rock all around, but it was no use.  They boys watched him wearing himself out, getting tired, giving up.  They finally saw him going away, a huge, growling, grunting mountain disappearing over the horizon.
The boys were saved by Wanblee, the eagle, who has always been a friend to our people.  It was the great eagle that let the boys grab hold of him and carried them safely back to their village.

Other legends such as that from the Kiowa tribe tell that the boys in this story were instead seven sisters…and when they ran from the great bear they hopped upon a great stump that grew into the enormous stump like formation we see today on the NE corner of Wyoming, and that the seven sisters were borne unto the sky and became the stars which now make up the Big Dipper formation.

The story from the Cheyenne tells us that there was a band of Cheyenne traveling to worship the Great Spirit at Bear’s Tipi (aka Devils Tower).  One of the warrior’s wives was charmed by an enormous bear with out a mate…the warriors set out to find and kill the bear….The woman is turned into a bear…The great bear chased the men…they climbed a great tree that then grew into Devils Tower and the Creator gave the men the strengthen to kill the bear that chased them.  The woman who had been transformed into a bear made the great rock her home, such that it came to be known as Bear’s Tipi.

Geologists tell us that Devils Tower was formed by the intrusion (the entry of molten rock into or between other rock formations) of igneous material, but there are several theories as to exactly how that process took place.  Learn more about how Devils Tower was formed.