“The Name’s the Thing”   Leave a comment

From a distance, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming looms over the landscape, prominent against the horizon, but once you enter the park surrounding it, it seems to vanish, only to reappear in fits and starts at first, peeping over colorful hills and cliff faces.

Geologically, we’re told, the tower is properly an igneous intrusion or eroded laccolith, two fun pieces of scientific jargon, technically descriptive, but lacking something nonetheless. And “Devil’s Tower”?  Why should the baddie of Judeo-Christianity get any credit at all for this splendid rock formation?  Let him stick to devilled eggs and devil’s food cake.

Those of us over a certain age may recall the Tower’s appearance as dramatic staging in the final portion of the ’77 Spielberg sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pop-culture association that now seriously dates us.

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bearlodgeMy wife and I arrived late in the day, which helped throw the tower’s dramatic vertical striations into high relief. A park information kiosk quietly points out that the English name “Devil’s Tower” is comparatively recent. Native names from several different tribes associate the formation with the bear — the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Lakota all call it some variation of “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s House” and their traditional stories describe bears marking the great stone with their claws.*  (You can read several versions under the section “Native American Folklore” here.)

Both name and thing started shifting for me as I read this: a good name illuminates the thing, and the thing itself lives more brightly and fully under a good name. I can still feel the association “stick” — now a piece at least of that older (and to me more apt) story has become part of this landscape.  Devil’s Tower, yes.  But the “real” name, well, that’s a different matter.  Invoke the place in memory by the older name — in this case a good one — and its naming story comes with it.  Misname something, or someone, and you may not be able to see that thing or person clearly or truthfully.

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Bear’s Lodge, now I pass along a little of your story to others, so they too may enjoy the rightness of a good name.

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*The tower remains a sacred site for several tribes.  “In 2005,” the Wikipedia article notes, “a proposal to recognize several Native American ties through the additional designation of the monolith as Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark” faced political opposition and the argument that a “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”

Image:  Bear over Devil’s Tower — park info kiosk.

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