A view of Mato Tipila, or Bear Lodge, in Wyoming. Photo: SpaceTrucker
Environment | National | Politics

Republicans advance bill to prevent name changes at sacred site

Republicans are reaching back to the Obama administration to justify a bill that prevents any changes to the namesake of Devils Tower National Monument.

Tribes and their advocates believe the "Devils Tower" moniker disrespects the sacred nature of the iconic site in Wyoming. But efforts to change the name have never gained significant ground due to a policy at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, or BGN, a federal body.

The policy, which bars name changes while legislation is pending in Congress, has not gone away. And legislation -- H.R.401 and S.70 -- is pending to address the name issue.

But a memo prepared by Republican staff claims a loophole exists.

"Of note, however, is that if the name was not established by Congress or the President, and the BGN has not acted within a 'reasonable time,' the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to act unilaterally," the document states.

And just when did something like that happen? In 2015, former president Barack Obama went to Alaska to recognize the Native name of another iconic geological feature.

"This occurred recently when former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali," the memo states.

There is no danger that Ryan Zinke, the current Secretary of the Interior, will change the name at Devils Tower. The monument, which was the first ever declared under the Antiquities Act, was set aside by his idol, former president Theodore Roosevelt.

President Donald Trump isn't poised to do anything either. He had bashed Obama for recognizing Denali and even threatened to "change back" to the non-Native designation, a move opposed by Alaska Natives and the state's all-Republican delegation in Congress.

Still, that leaves other Republicans all too eager to assert the authority of the legislative branch. The House Committee on Natural Resources advanced H.R.401 at a markup session on Wednesday morning.

"Devils Tower is one of the most recognized names," said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), who introduced the bill in January 2017. She added that "thousands of constituents" in her state don't want to see it changed.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Committee on Natural Resources Markup March 14, 2018

But Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the committee, said tribal views about the name should be respected. He pointed out that no hearing has ever taken place on H.R.410.

"I think we can all agree we would not want the word 'devil' tacked on to our places of worship," Grijalva said at the markup.

An apparent mistranslation of Mato Tipila, which means "Bear Lodge" in the Lakota language, led to the current name for the site. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Lakota peoples still go there to offer prayers and conduct ceremonies.

But tribal attempts to change the name are limited solely to the geologic feature "Devils Tower," as well as for the surrounding area, which is known as "Devils Tower, Wyoming." The name of the monument itself cannot be changed without higher-level action.

"I find it hard to believe that the Trump administration is on the verge of changing the name at this monument," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California). He said H.R.410 "slams the door" on tribes and sets a bad precedent for limiting tribal input in the future.

Amid the objections, the committee passed the bill by a vote of 20 to 13. All Republicans supported it. Democrats were opposed.

H.R.410 can now be considered by the full House. If it clears the chamber, it could be taken up in the Senate.

House Committee on Natural Resource Notice:
Full Committee Markup (March 14, 2018)

Related Stories:
Republican bill blunts Native efforts to change name at sacred site (March 9, 2018)
Chief Arvol Looking Horse still seeking name change at sacred site (October 4, 2016)
Chief Arvol Looking Horse pushes name change for sacred site (September 23, 2015)
Comment sought on potential change to name of Devils Tower (June 23, 2015)