(excerpt from article by Glenn Phillips in Site Saver Fall 1998)
Bear’s Lodge, located in northwestern Wyoming, is a towering 1,280 foot monolith long considered sacred by over twenty tribes in the Plains Nation. Religious and cultural ceremonies have been performed at this site for centuries and include the Sun Dance, sweat lodge rites, vision quests, and prayer offerings. The height of ceremonial activity takes place during the month of June each year.
Non-Indians have a different view of the Tower, many encountering it for the first time in the science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The site is an especially popular destination for rock climbers who climb the site year round. Bear’s Lodge is, however, most crowded with climbers during the summer months. It was during the especially holy period in June that climbers clashed with Native Americans and the Park Service who manage the site.
Tribal leaders consequently met with Park Service officials with their concerns and a compromise solution resulted. The National Park Service asked for a voluntary ban on rock climbing during the month of June so that Native practitioners could perform their sacred ceremonies without disruption.
The Access Fund, a national climbing organization, has officially endorsed the program and according to the Park Service, in 1996 and 1997, rock climbing has decreased eighty percent during the month of June. A climbing outfitter, with the backing of James Watt’s Mountain States Legal Foundation, challenged the voluntary ban as unconstitutional. The group contended that the ban violates separation of church and state, thus constituting a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
On April 3, in a rare victory for sacred sites, Federal Judge William F. Downes of the U.S. District Court in Wyoming, upheld the voluntary ban on rock climbing, thereby dismissing the suit. Judge Downes ruled that “the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and, it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment. The ruling is currently on appeal by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
See Site Saver newsletter, Fall 1996, for further background information.