Indian Religious Freedom at Devil’s Tower National Monument

In its April 26, 1999 ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld the National Park Service’s accommodations of American Indian religious practices at Devils Tower National Monument (see full text of decision). In March of 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs appeal of the 10th Circuit ruling, thus upholding the appellate court’s decision as final.

  Devils Tower, a majestic, 600-foot-tall butte in northeast Wyoming, is a sacred religious site for American Indians from over twenty tribes in the Great Plains. It is also a popular location for technical rock climbing. Since 1995, the National Park Service has asked rock climbers to voluntarily refrain from scaling the tower during June, a month when Indians travel there to perform sacred religious ceremonies.

  The Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of a lawsuit filed by several rock climbers who argued that the Park Service's actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This clause prohibits the government from sponsoring, supporting, or becoming entangled in religious affairs.

  The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and four prominent spiritual leaders intervened in the case as Defendants, represented by the Indian Law Resource Center, an indigenous rights law firm representing tribes in North, Central and South America, and attorneys in the Tribe’s Legal Department. Amicus briefs from three American Indian tribes, three national Indian rights organizations and twelve prominent religious organizations were filed in support of the Park Service and its accommodation of Indian religious practices.

  The court ruled that the rock climbers did not have standing to challenge the regulations since they had not shown how they were injured by the regulations.

  “This is an important legal victory for the hundreds and thousands of Indian people who worship at Devils Tower every year,” says Steven Gunn, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center. The Court of Appeals affirmed the April 2, 1998, ruling of the U.S. District Court in Wyoming, which also upheld the Park Service’s regulations. The district court had ruled that the regulations are constitutional since "the purposes underlying [them] are really to remove barriers to religious worship occasioned by public ownership of the Tower. . . . The government is merely enabling Native Americans to worship in a more peaceful setting. In doing so, the government has no involvement in the manner of worship that takes place, but only provides an atmosphere more conducive to worship."

Regulations Balance Competing Interests

  The Park Service implemented its climbing management regulations in 1995, after nearly two years of consultation with American Indians, rock climbers, environmentalists, and others. It did so to balance the competing interests of Indians and rock climbers, and to encourage tolerance and respect for Indian religious practices. Most rock climbers have shown respect for the Indian religious practitioners and have supported the Park Service's program. The Access Fund, a national climbing organization, has officially endorsed the program and the Park Service reports that since 1995, rock climbing at Devils Tower during June has fallen by over 80%.

Devils Tower Is Vital to Indian Religion and Culture

  For Arvol Looking Horse, a member and spiritual leader of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, this ruling is a significant victory. "Once again, we can worship in our traditional way and practice our traditional culture without interference at this sacred site."

  Devils Tower is a sacred site and a vital cultural resource for Indians from over twenty Plains tribes. For centuries, Indians have performed religious and cultural ceremonies there, including the Sun Dance, sweat lodge rites, vision quests, and prayer offerings. These ceremonies continue today. However, in recent years, growing numbers of visitors and rock climbers have disrupted the ceremonies. According to Looking Horse, "Climbers make lots of noise and come near our people when they are praying. By doing this, they disturb our efforts to obtain spiritual guidance. When climbers hammer objects into the butte, it is like they are pounding stakes into our bodies."

Ruling Upholds American Tradition of Religious Tolerance

  "There is a long and principled tradition in this country of accommodating religious practices on government lands," says Gunn. In many national parks, the National Park Service owns or leases churches and other religious properties. The government permits groups to conduct religious services on these properties, and it prohibits recreational or other activities that would conflict with the religious services. "Time and again, the Supreme Court has said that the government 'follows the best of our traditions' when it 'respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates . . . their spiritual needs,'" says Gunn. "These American traditions must be upheld for our country's first Americans, too."

Full text of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision

Note:  Beginning in 1994, with the help of the Northwest Area Foundation and other foundations, the Indian Law Resource Center began a multi-year project paying special attention to the needs of tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.  The Northern Plains Project provided a wide range of legal services to tribes in these states (including the Devil’s Tower case) and carried on educational efforts to assist tribes, law students and Indian leaders.