“A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”
N.Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain
Over the years of cross-country road trips, we have passed by the turn-off to Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming because there was urgency to get where we needed to go. Occasionally we would see it hazy in the far distance, so I could say I had “seen it” but I really had not seen it according to Scott Momaday.
Scott is a Kiowa for whom Devil’s Tower is named Tso-i-e or “standing on a rock” and is sacred ground. The Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapahoe all revere this rock monolith although most tribal members did not live near enough to see it themselves, but the legends traveled many miles through the generations through oral tradition.
Scott taught an unforgettable class I took as a 19 year old sophomore at Stanford on Native American Mythology and Lore. He has a commanding presence, a booming resonant voice for story telling, a predilection for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and a hankering since childhood to be part of the legend of Billy the Kid. The first day of class, he introduced us to Tso-i-e first and foremost. He told us his grandmother’s story passed to her from her grandparents:
“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified.; they ran and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”
Today we finally made time to see the Tower up close. For me, this “close encounter” was meant to connect the dots from my class taught by Scott 39 years ago and to understand more fully the spiritual background of the Plains people our son now lives with and teaches on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
The Tower is holy ground for us all-we are diminished in its presence without enshrining or worshipping it. It disquiets the heart with its awful grandeur and sheer other-worldliness. In its own way, it is resonant as Scott’s captivating stories about its origins, yet remains a reminder of the ever-changing impermanence of geologic formations.
We need more holy places in our lives even as they change with the sands and winds of time. We need more awe-filled awful quiet in our hearts.
We need to tell the sacred stories, generation to generation, never forgetting Who set the world in motion.