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Why You Did Write About the Closure

Why You Did Write About the Closure

One person’s terra incognita is another’s home.” – Nisi Shawl

No matter how many times some may call them “pristine,” or “untouched,” the lands and waters in the United States that we recreate in and upon were not “virgin” before 1492. In making national parks and other landscapes part of the national, natural heritage, the federal government and the dominant white culture erased the significance of these places to those who came before us and are still with us. Today, the National Park Service is only beginning to stop the exclusion of Native Americans from these landscapes; it is only beginning to acknowledge the harms caused and the damage done.

While the attention of much of the outdoor community is currently focused on one of our newest national monuments, Bears Ears, conversations and debates are rekindling about our very first: Bear Lodge, otherwise known as Devils Tower.[1] In 1995, the National Park Service implemented a voluntary rock climbing closure every June to respect the wishes and beliefs of the Northern Plains tribes[2] for whom Bear Lodge holds tremendous spiritual, cultural, traditional, and historical significance. The implementation was tremendously controversial, leading to litigation in some of the highest courts, but over the course of time this imperfect compromise settled down.

That is, until this summer, when discussion renewed in online climbing forums and publications. Lucas Barth, a climbing ranger for the National Park Service at Bear Lodge, started a forum discussion on Mountain Project about the voluntary June closure, stating that he “started this thread because there is a lot of inaccurate information out there and the issue still needs to be talked about because the numbers of climbers in June HAVE been increasing throughout the years.” The conversation spread to Super Topo, and was followed in mid-June by an Outdoor Journal article titled, “Devils Tower: Why We Don’t Climb in June.” A few days later, climber, guide, and writer Jenny Abegg wrote a rebuttal to the Outdoor Journal piece on her own blog, titled “Devils Tower: Why I Can’t Write About the Voluntary Closure,” followed shortly by a similar piece by her fellow climber and guide Dylan Reed, “A Conversation, Closure, and Choices.”

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Having spent the bulk of 2015 researching for and writing my undergraduate thesis on the history of the controversy over climbing at Bear Lodge, I feel compelled to respond to the conversations underway this summer, and in particular to the writings of Abegg and Reed. Despite the title of Abegg’s piece - “Why I Can’t Write About the Voluntary Closure,” Abegg did write about the closure. And, despite her plea for folks to withhold opinions and visit Bear Lodge with an open mind - a poorly veiled urging to maintain the status quo of white settler dominance over this landscape - she did give us her opinion on it, writing, “I’m in Devils Tower in June, and I’m guiding, and I’m climbing.” Regardless of how many times Abegg insists the issue is so complicated and that we should all simply listen to each other, by climbing (and guiding), in June, she has already made her position on the closure clear. She does not respect it. Nor does Reed, nor the other climbers and guides who ascend the Bear Lodge in June.

While those climbers who choose to violate the closure are in the minority, it is critical that we understand and historicize the arguments climbers are making against the closure (or for climbing regardless of the closure). Their individual and personal reasons may vary, but the arguments put forth echo those expressed in the negotiations and legal disputes over the development and implementation of the closure in the mid-1990s. Ranging from statements that climbing is a spiritual pursuit – effectively appropriating tribal understandings of and relations to the Bear Lodge  – to arguments that the tribes have more important things to worry about than climbing on some rock, such efforts to legitimize climbing at the Bear Lodge are propped up by white privilege and a history of violence and oppression of Native Americans.

Some readers might be thinking, but this is just a sport, it is just rock climbing! But is anything just a sport? If sports and physical endeavors like climbing were disconnected from society, why do the names Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick, Kathrine Switzer, or Serena Williams ring a bell? After all, “sports are socially constructed in particular historical contexts,” and climbing has particularly strong roots in whiteness and imperialism.[3] In addition, Bear Lodge, like national parks, forests, and other public lands, is “a microcosm for the history of conflict and misunderstanding that has long characterized the unequal relations between the United States and native peoples.”[4]  The landscapes of the American West - the “frontier” - were seen as a source of American values of independence, individualism, and democracy, so in the establishment of public lands the fathers of the American conservation movement sought to preserve “the nation’s most sacred myth of origin.”[5]

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

During the negotiations and legal wranglings surrounding the climbing management plan in the 1990s, climbers sought to appropriate language used by Northern Plains tribes in order to position rock climbing at Bear Lodge as equally spiritual, religious, traditional, and/or historical.[6] In his piece, Reed in particular draws upon the “climbing is a spiritual experience” argument, going as far as to state that “if there is one group of people who can even come close to capturing the real spirituality that the American Indians have for a place like this, I hope it’s climbers.” Anthropologist David Kozak, writing about rock climbing and Traditional Cultural Properties, asked, “Are climbers consciously or unconsciously adopting a spiritual discourse as a strategy and as a way to legitimize their activities?”[7] Yet it does not matter whether or not climbers invoking this argument are intentionally appropriating the language of spirituality: the result is to position themselves and their desire to climb Bear Lodge over the experiences and beliefs of the Northern Plains tribes, continuing a history of violence and erasure.

Similar arguments about the spiritual or religious nature of climbing were made during a controversy over climbing at Cave Rock, near Lake Tahoe, California. Cave Rock is a sacred site for the Washoe tribe in that area, and ultimately the Forest Service decided to close the site to climbing. In response to claims that climbing was also a religious or spiritual activity, the Forest Service supervisor responded, “while the Forest Service appreciated the passion of the climbing community, ‘climbing does not meet the legal definition of a religion to receive the accommodation protections provided by the U.S. Constitution.’”[8]

Perhaps most problematically, Abegg and Reed cite the extensive challenges faced by the Lakota and other Northern Plains nations – from alcoholism to domestic violence to unemployment – and seek to argue, as others do, that the tribes have bigger issues to handle. Abegg writes, “It makes me question whether all of these people even have time to think about the renaming of Devils Tower or the June voluntary closure when they’re worried about their health and safety.” This is a common sentiment among some climbers and guides at Bear Lodge, and demonstrates how these climbers are choosing to assume what the tribes and their members are thinking, or, even more reprehensibly, deciding that they know what is better for the tribes. Such cultural arrogance, deeply rooted in colonialism and imperialism, is not limited to these climbers. Judge William Downes, the Federal District Court of Wyoming Judge who ultimately ruled in favor of the voluntary June closure, held such views. During the case, he asked, “whether the tribes’ effort and time might not be better spent remedying Native American social ills like alcoholism,” and stated that while his ruling “may still have preserved Native American religion into the next century, [he was] not at all certain that there’ll be many Indian children left to exercise it.” A tribal attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux responded, “we appear here in federal court to protect our traditions because we believe that our traditions are in fact the root of the solution to all of our societal ills.” [9]

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

It is impossible, as well as inappropriate, for outsiders to fully understand the sacred meanings of the Bear Lodge to the various Plains tribes. Thus for Abegg, Reed, and others to presume that the Lakota have more important things to worry about is profoundly disrespectful, and ignores the fact that numerous tribes and nations were intensely involved in the negotiations of the climbing management plan, and in fact advocated for a climbing closure to be voluntary, not mandatory. Elaine Quiver, one of the members of the working group that developed the proposal for the voluntary closure, said, “they have to make their own decision not to climb…. we don’t want you to tell them, we don’t want a law forbidding them, we want climbers to choose not to climb out of respect for our ceremonies.’”[10]

The ostensible concern Abegg and Reed state for the extensive problems of the Northern Plains tribes ties deeply into their efforts to portray their pieces as nuanced think pieces. Abegg’s post in particular could be summed up as “it’s complicated,” and Reed’s as “can’t we all just get along?” But “it’s complicated” is a Facebook relationship status and an intellectually lazy statement. It is not a way to conclude thoughts on a challenging topic. Both notions leave the status quo in place – a status quo that leaves privileged climbers happily going about their adventures without much thought as to consequences of their actions. Abegg states that she’s stood for Standing Rock and other buzzword liberal causes, yet when her own privilege – the Park Service-sanctioned ability to climb (and profit from guiding) at the Bear Lodge – is threatened, she embodies a classic “ally” position. Somehow Abegg, Reed, and others think they know better, that the tribes should worry about other things, and anyhow it’s all too complicated and nuanced and can’t we all just get along?

For a just and equitable society, those with privilege and power will have to give up that privilege and power. It should not be too much to ask of climbers to avoid climbing at Bear Lodge or sacred sites on public, tribal, and private land across the nation and the world. It would be a small step towards recognizing and reconciling the part climbers have played in a history and a present of violence.


[1] The debate over the name of Bear Lodge has been ongoing for decades. At present, a number of members of the Northern Plains tribes are pushing for the national monument’s name to be changed from “Devils Tower” to “Bear Lodge.” Recognizing the extensive history of white settlers renaming indigenous places, at times with particularly negative appellations like “Devils Tower,” I refer here to the monument as Bear Lodge. Bob Moen, “Debate simmers over name of Devils Tower monument in Wyoming,” Casper Star Tribune, published October 7, 2016, See also Anna Marie Kramer, "The Power of the Tower: Contesting History at Bear Lodge/Devils Tower National Monument" (2016), Pomona Senior Theses, 151,, 6.

[2] The National Park Service states that the following twenty tribes have potential cultural affiliation with the Bear Lodge: Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana; Blackfeet; Blood (Canada); Confederated Kootenai & Salish Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana; Cheyenne River Lakota; Crow; Crow Creek Lakota; Eastern Shoshone; Flandreau Santee Dakota; Lower Brule Lakota; Northern Arapaho; Northern Cheyenne; Oglala Lakota; Piikani (Canada); Rosebud Lakota; Sissteon-Wahpeton Dakota; Southern Arapaho; Southern Cheyenne; Spirit Lake Lakota; Standing Rock Lakota; The Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara); Turtle Mountain Chippewa; and the Yankton Dakota. For the purposes of brevity, I use the regional designation - the Northern Plains tribes - when referring to this group. George L. San Miguel, “How Is Devils Tower a Sacred Site to American Indians,” National Park Service: Devils Tower National Monument, last updated September 29, 2015,

[3] David Robbins, “Sport, Hegemony and the Middle Class: The Victorian Mountaineers,” Theory, Culture & Society 4 (1987): 581, 587; Bruce Erickson, “Style Matters: Explorations of Bodies, Whiteness, and Identity in Rock Climbing,” Sociology of Sport Journal 22 (2005): 373–96; Reuben Ellis, Vertical Margins: Mountaineering and the Landscapes of Neoimperialism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).

[4] Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8, 29.

[5] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 13.

[6] Kramer, “The Power of the Tower,” 78-95.

[7] David L. Kozak, “‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’: Rock Climbing and Traditional Cultural Properties,” The Applied Anthropologist 26 (2006): 170-1, 178.

[8] Maribeth Gustafson, “Record of Decision,” quoted in Matthew S. Makley and Michael J. Makley, Cave Rock: Climbers, Courts, and a Washoe Indian Sacred Place (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2010), 84.

[9] Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt, 2 F. Supp. 2d 1448 (D. Wyo. 1998), quoted in Erik B. Bluemel, “Prioritizing Multiple Uses on Public Lands After Bear Lodge,” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 32 (2005): 388; and Lloyd Burton and Dave Ruppert, “Bear’s Lodge or Devils Tower: Inter-Cultural Relations, Legal Pluralism, and the Management of Sacred Sites on Public Lands,” Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy 8 (1999): 229.

[10] Kramer, “The Power of the Tower,” 75.


Content Rummage: Editing for Privilege

Content Rummage: Editing for Privilege

The Bears Ears:  Cultural Appropriation in the Outdoor Industry and Why “Public” Lands Are Not Public

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