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PARKS! Part 3: Close Encounters with Mato Tipila

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Lillah Grinnell / EyeEm / Getty Images
Lillah Grinnell / EyeEm / Getty Images

As of late, Endless Thread co-host Ben Brock Johnson has been obsessed with a rock in Wyoming, a lot like the protagonist of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But you won't find Ben in the kitchen, making a replica of the rock out of mud and chicken wire. Instead you'll find him and co-host Amory Sivertson in this episode, traversing Reddit and TikTok and YouTube and Wyoming to find out why hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn to a monolith that has so many names and meanings.

Show notes

  • r/weird Devils Tower is a geological wonder located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming in the United States. It is a massive rock formation that rises 867 feet above its base and is considered sacred by several Native American tribes.
  • r/NationalParks Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
  • TikToker miniminuteman

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Ben Brock Johnson: Does this mean anything to you my fine musically inclined friend?


Ben: Are you a solfege person?

Amory Sivertson: Yeah. [Vocalizes melody]

Ben: That was pretty good. How about when I give it to you this way?

 Archival: [Crowd singing melody]

Ben: Does that mean anything to you?

Amory: Nope. Never heard it.

Ben: OK. Alright. Let's see if this helps.


Ben: Anything there for you?

A: No, but it's gotta be something from the '80s? Like an '80s movie.

B: Well, you're getting there. I think you've probably noticed by now, Amory.

Movie excerpt: Something that's a little strange with dad.

Amory: [Laughs]

Ben: And, I know — I know Amory what you’re thinking.

Movie excerpt: This means something. This is important.

Amory: I'm loving this journey, by the way.

Ben: OK OK. I’m gonna stop being weird now I promise.

Amory: No. Never stop being weird. Never.

Ben: Well, yeah I guess I really won't, because I’ve been a little obsessed recently. With a movie.

Narrator: The title of the picture: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Refers to an intriguing possibility.

Amory: Mm. And that intriguing possibility is…?

B: Aliens. Specifically the idea of of coming into real contact with aliens. It’s a great movie. But we’re not really here to talk about the movie. Let’s just say it’s kind of playing in the background.

Archival Sound: Devil’s Tower, Wyoming was the first national monument in this country directed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1915.

Ben: In the foreground is one of the movie’s main characters.

Narrator: Now, Richard Dreyfuss, as Roy Neary, will share with audiences all over the world.

Amory: Oh is Richard Dreyfuss in it?

Ben: He stars in it as an electric grid line worker who gets a fly by from aliens, but I’m talking about something else. A massive, eerie, geological formation that protrudes from the Black Hills area of Wyoming so strikingly that I am far far from the only person obsessed with this thing. Dryfuss’s character in this movie gets so possessed by this place, Amory, that his family flees him while he builds a replica of it out of mud and chicken wire and trash in his kitchen

Amory: They flee him because he's so annoying about it?

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: OK.

Ben: Don't go anywhere, please. And eventually shows up there in person to meet said aliens despite the best efforts, by the way, of the military. But Dryfuss and are are just two of millions with this obsession. Over hundreds, maybe thousands of years. And this is a National Monument, currently…different than a National Park but…pretty close. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Amory: What is this place called?

Ben: Well, it’s complicated.


Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson and you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Ben: We’re coming to you from the big screen of the 1970s. From a state my family used to live in. But also just like from my basement at my podcasting desk in front of a computer.

Amory: Womp womp. But technically from WBUR Boston’s NPR station. And we’re bringing you a whole series! On parks! All month! And our latest episode is all about something Ben just won’t shut up about lately. He keeps busting out the chicken wire and the mud.

Ben: I'm in the kitchen. I'm yelling. I'm like 'It's going to be great! You'll love it! And everybody is like 'Sure. OK.' But I’m not the only one with this obsession. I promise.

Amory: BBJ can you explain your obsession a little bit more to me?

Ben: No!

Amory: All right. End of episode. [Laughs]

Ben: I don’t know why I’m so into this like sky-scraper sized rock in the middle of what has long been ranching territory. And in a way this makes me, of course, exactly like Richard Dreyfuss's character in the movie. A huge plot point in the film is that to his wife, to his children, to anyone else — after he gets a drive by by an alien ship, he keeps seeing this thing in his minds eye. He can’t stop thinking about it. And that is kind of what happened to me recently.

Amory: What did the aliens do to you Ben? Did they hurt you? We haven't talked about this.

Ben: I can’t remember. What I can tell you is there are a lot of people like me. Like I said.

Amory: Can I get some evidence that people are like you in this regard?

Ben: Most def. The KOA campground near this towering rock, plays the movie every night at 8 p.m. on the patio of the main lodge. And there are people who come just to watch this movie that involves this rock under the rock, every night.

Jeannie: Like, last night when I left, there was probably about 50 people out there watching the movie.

Ben: Shouts out to Jeannie who says it’s rain or shine and people, Amory, sit out there with umbrellas.

Amory: OK, but why?

Ben: Again, like Richard Dryfuss. I don’t know. But we’re gonna try and find out. I’m gonna bring you a profile of this giant mysterious spot of rock…with the help of some Reddit comments. Because seriously, whether you’re on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok or Reddit. This rock is constantly being talked about. On Reddit you can find tons of threads about it in r/nationalparks or r/pics or even r/weird or r/mysteriousfacts. Ready for the first Reddit comment?

Amory: Hit me.

Reddit comment: Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Ben:. OK OK this was more of a reddit post with an amazing picture, so it's not that interesting to listen to. I'm going to share a picture with you. Can you describe this place for me?


Amory: Hm. It's like a big very very tall plateau, I mean  like a mountain, but plateaued at the top, that looks like it's reaching  up from the earth. it's hard to get a sense of how tall it is but there are trees  seemingly at its base. The formation itself is very curious because it almost looks like wooden--

Ben: Mashed potatoes. Does it remind you of mashed potatoes?

Amory: No. No It looks --

Ben: Sorry. That's just me.

Amory: It looks to me like a bunch of wooden planks. If you were seeing this from a distance, you wouldn't even think that it was made of rock.

Ben: Interesting that you say 'wooden planks.' Interesting.

Amory: Yeah?

Ben: Yeah. Would you like some more info?

Amory: Yes.

Ben: I got a guy.

Tyler Devine: My name is Tyler Devine. I'm an interpretive park ranger here at devil's tower national monument. I'm currently speaking to you below that 867 foot monolith that. We know as Devil's Tower or Bear Lodge. There's actually many different names for it.  But maybe we'll get into that later. 

Amory: OK immediately interested to know if interpretive park rangers do interpretive dance?

Ben: I mean, you’re not far off?

Tyler:  I like to say I'm the fun ranger, not the gun ranger. 

Ben: [Laughs]

Amory: Oh boy. [Laughs]

Ben: Tyler is quick to point out that his colleagues who do carry guns are also, pretty fun. But Interpretive rangers are tasked with interpreting the cultural and natural resources for people to better understand and connect with the park.

Tyler: So I do the campground talks, I do 20 minute chats, I do guided walks.

Amory: He's got all of the public interaction vibes that I don't possess. I love his energy, though.

Ben:  As do I. He seems to have a bottomless well of it.


Tyler: We're going to have our annual bat festival. It's going to include an inflatable cave.  Will have somebody from the U. S. Forest Service, we'll have all sorts of fun activities, bat themed activities for families to enjoy...

Amory: Very wholesome. But what's the difference between a monument and a park?

Ben: OK so the way Tyler describes it, the difference is some ways size. Like Devil’s Tower towers over 13 hundred acres of land though. Really the difference is between an act of congress, which you need for a park and an act of a single president.

Tyler: They can utilize this thing called the Antiquities Act of 1906. And that's when we became a national monument. We are actually the first national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

Ben: And one thing to say is: in some ways things haven’t changed a ton since then. My family lived in Wyoming for a while. And one of the reasons that this geological marvel is so marvelous, is that it doesn’t have a lot of competition for attention in the area. Redditor Shankster 1987 knows what I’m talking about.

Riley Shanks: Hello my name is Riley Shanks and I’m from Detroit Michigan. One morning, after driving all night, I got to this park. I had to use all the change I had left to pay the fee at the dropbox because nobody was in the booth. I got out of my car to stretch my legs and look around when I heard a rustling just off the lot. I look down, and not even 20 feet from me is a bear. I backed away until it couldn't see me then ran away, jumped in my car and drove off because bears are scary when nobody is around and nobody in the world knows where you are.

Amory: I too would have noped right out of there.

Ben: Same. Speaking of doing things on a whim though, a lot of various commenters online point to one particular story about the tower which resulted in one man being the butt of many jokes. The butte of many jokes?

Amory: [Laughs]

Ben: Tell me the story of George Hopkins. 

Tyler: Nice. Yeah. George Hopkins, the only guy to get to the top of Devil's Tower without climbing it that we know of.

Ben: George Hopkins was a daredevil who in 1941 decided to parachute onto the top of this isolated flat topped hill with steep sides? AKA butte. It was a whole thing. He was in the papers.

Archival audio: There he goes. He was at Dunkirk. Now finding life at home, too dull and slow. He Maroons himself on this rock. We can see his parachute. And George himself as we fly around the top with the camera, but he can’t get down.

 Tyler: So he landed on top successfully. Got that rope ready to go, strung it down, but then that rope got stuck in all sorts of cracks.  So now he was stuck on top of the tower, started to holler down, you know, people started to see him up there.

Amory: This guy does not sound like he had a fully-fledged plan here.

Ben: Yeah. Some people might call him kinda an idiot. But he was a famous idiot. And he did make the place famous, too. Another thing I learned from reddit comments about this place Amory? Helicopters? Like helicopters that could hover and land on things? Not really a thing in 1941.

Tyler:  I think even Goodyear offered this new technology, this thing called a blimp to come and pick him off the top of the tower. And, um, yeah, none of that ended up happening. We ended up having Jack Durrance, um, from Montana, come back down and climb his route that he established a few years prior to George Hopkins getting stuck up there. Jack Durrance climbed his, uh, yeah, made his, uh, climb of the Durrance Route, which is the most popular climbing route on the monument, you know, on Devil's Tower still to this day,]

Amory: You’re telling me this guy who marooned himself and forced a bunch of other people to climb up and save him is a hero?

Ben: I mean he was one of the people who put the place on the map. And Shankster1987 and his bear run-in aside, they do get a ton of people during the busy warmer months. Including thousands of rock climbers. Tyler actually says they get over 500,000 visitors a year and for them that is plenty. He says that like many National Park and National Monument locations, the infrastructure of Devil’s Tower-- as a public space-- is really strained and out of date. The visitor center was built six years before George Hopkins parachuted onto the butte. Tyler feels like they’re at a bit of a breaking point in trying to balance conservation with recreation. Even though he really does love getting visitors.

Amory: Does Tyler have a favorite kind of visitor?

Ben: He definitely seems to have a least favorite kind,  identified by Redditor Gnarl88.

Gnarl88 [read by producer]: Some people out there actually consider them to be stumps from ancient giant trees believe it or not.

Amory: Oh. A tree stump is a good way to describe it. Like a really tree stump.

Ben: Yes and there are a lot of people who actually seem to believe this. Put Tyler in the not category.

Tyler: We have no evidence of. Petrified wood or anything like that here. This rock that we see is called Phonolite Porphyry. It's very, very close to granite, except that it's missing a quartz. But yeah, as far as we can tell, you know, I mean, this is an old magma pocket. Maybe it could have been a volcano. There's actually four different accepted theories from a geologic standpoint.

Ben: I’m gonna spare you the details because all of these theories are very geological

Amory: So, is this still a mystery? In terms of how this thing got here?

Ben: Well there’s things we know.

Tyler:  I would say as far as some type of volcanic activity, that's, that's the consensus. That's decided.

Ben: But also things we don’t. Like, is it an actual spot of a volcano? Is it a giant volcanic caldera, filled with lava but never erupted? A laccolith, or a pocket of magma that crystalized underground in this very specific way that created this cluster of massive rock columns only found in a few places of the world? There's one called  Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland? One thing that we do seem to know is that the top of Devil’s Tower actually reflects where the ground used to be. And erosion over time has brought the ground down, except for in this one spot.

Amory: What? Why in that one spot?

Ben: Because the rock is rock hard.

Amory: [Laughs] Over how much time?

Ben: Oh fifty, sixty million years or so.

Tyler: If you were to look at it from a top down view, it kind of looks like a bullseye where you have the hardest rocks right in the middle. That's Devil's Tower. Around that, you'll have these softer and softer and softer sedimentary rocks going out in concentric circles all around it, so, you know, it's been slowly eroded down, but that. That phonolite porphyry, that core, is just so much harder rock than, yeah, sedimentary rock. So this igneous core.

Amory: OK. So to review. Old rock. Special rock. Volcanic related. Not a giant tree stump.

Ben: Tyler hates to disappoint the endless line of visitors and internet commenters who bring this up, but yeah that’s right.

Tyler: It's super fun to think about that stuff, um, but I think sometimes, you know, on the internet, things can get a little out of hand with that and arguments can ensue. And, you know, any of our Instagram, Facebook posts, many of those common threads degrade to, 'it's a tree.' It's not a tree stump, you know, it's, 

Ben: Really, is that true?

Ben: Alas, the tree stump thing will truly not go away. As evidenced by a TikToker I won’t name.

Unnamed TikToker: Why do people get so upset whenever you say that the Devil's Tower is a tree that had been cut down and this is just a stump? I posted a few videos and prove without a shadow of a doubt. That this is the case.

But at least there’s this other guy, whose TikTok has about a million more views.

Miniminuteman: And the indigenous folklore surrounding the site, claiming that it was a trunk of a giant tree that was scraped by a bear has been turned into a lovely take talk conspiracy theory, which seems just about as disrespectful as renaming it to devil's tower. But I guess that's not really my call to make your way. This is bullshit.

A: OK. A lot in there to unpack.

Ben: True. TikTok, YouTube, Reddit conspiracy theories probably can’t be blamed on folklore. But the folklore itself, is both varied and pretty fascinating. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s connected to the big sky and brilliant stars you can see out there in Wyoming around this place. It is connected to space. And it’s connected to something that seems to have been true long before this massive piece of igneous rock from volcanic magma was a national monument. This place does draws you in. You kind of can’t explain it. And there’s something else I want to say, which is that as I reported this story, I started to feel pretty weird about calling it Devil’s Tower. And in the conversations I was having I stopped. And I started to call it by a different name. Mato Tipila. I’ll tell you more about why in a minute.


Amory: OK. I’m getting a picture here. We’ve talked a lot about the annual tourist visitors to the rock. And mentioned that it’s a popular spot for rock climbers, and people hoping to connect with the ecology or wildlife or even just its geologic uniqueness.

Ben: Yes. But our interpretive ranger Tyler also carefully acknowledges a whole other layer to this place.


Tyler: We have 26 different affiliated tribes that find this place spiritually significant. And some of these tribes, you know, put it on that pedestal of calling it a sacred site as well.

Ben: The more we learn about this massive structure, the more we learn that its name, its purpose has been contested. A particular example of this was a set of court battles that pitted rock climbers and Native American tribes against each other over the place; climbers wanted unlimited access, the National Park Service came up with accommodations for native groups who wanted to use the space for longstanding spiritual ceremonies in the summer. Some climbers wouldn’t accept that. Their went all the way to the Supreme Court

Amory: And did it get settled?

Ben: Sort of. The month of June is now a voluntary ban on climbing and NPS representatives say there’s been an 80-90 percent reduction in climbing during that time. So, it goes from over 400 people in a month to maybe 30. For his part, Tyler acknowledges that this arrangement isn’t perfect. That climbers scaling the tower might be akin to watching a bunch of people clamber all over a cathedral for fun. At the same time? He says he’s met Lakota climbers, too. Depending a bit on who you talk to,  the sharing of this space is going OK.

Bunny: Hello?

Ben: Is that Bunny? 

Bunny: Yes, it's Bunny. 

Ben: Hey Bunny, how are you? I'm doing great. Beautiful day today. Where are you? I'm, uh, nine miles from Mato Tipila. Really? On the northern edge of the Sacred Black Hills, yes.

Ben: Bunny says she is the great granddaughter of Chief John Grass of the Lakota Dakota Nation.

Bunny: Bunny Sings Wolf Machichina Sugmonituvawampi. Um, my given name was Bunny, Bernice Bunny May. , my spiritual name was given to me later, Bunny Sings Wolf, to remind me to speak and teach and travel strong like a wolf teacher and not hide like a bunny anymore.

Ben: Bunny helps run and her mission in life seems to be bringing the many different groups that might be identified under the larger Lakota moniker together. Some of that, every year, happens at Mato Tipila.

Bunny: Mato means bear, and t'pila means home, or t'pi, home of byear. And bear is a huge medicine symbol for healing. And so as calling it home of bear, there's a deeper meaning to that, because indigenous people all across Turtle Island here from many nations understood bear to be the animal that taught us about plant medicines and about our own ability to heal from within.

Ben: Bunny used to work in a gift shop on the outskirts of the monument and she says that whether we’re talking the obsession of people in the Close Encounters movie, native peoples who have lived in the area for thousands of years or tourists, there’s something to this.

Bunny: I've had a number of people visiting from all walks of life and all nations I've talked to as they visit here. They say, 'I'm not, I'm not a spiritual person. I'm not religious, but I come here and I just want to cry and I want to pray. I feel a, a power here.' and I always tell people, 'Well, that's nature's art.'

Ben: As to whether we’re treating this place with respect to its deeper history and it’s more recent history?

Ben: Do you feel like there's balance there? Yes, that is a beautiful question because, um, yes, we were able to conduct our first, um, Sundance ceremony there.

Ben: Bunny says that a number of Lakota and native tribe ceremonies, some of which lapsed over the last three years, are back in full swing. And that this is in part thanks to efforts of National Parks personnel in working with tribal leaders to ensure space for them to do various summer ceremonies.

Amory: And do people share that perspective? Are they cooperative?

Ben: Great question. And I think a thing I didn’t think about when I first looking into this is the number of different perspectives and stories there would be in connection to this place.

Craig Howe: My name is Craig Howe, and, uh, where I'm at is at a site called Wingspring.And what I do is design and build this place, but I'm also the director of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies. The acronym is CARENS  and we founded this organization in 2004 and so we're, next year will be our 20th anniversary, uh, as a puny little non profit here, uh, and the offices are located here at Wingsprings.

Ben: Well, congratulations on almost being a full adult. 

Craig: [Laughs] Right. Thank you.

Ben: And Craig, just so I get this right, are you a doctor? 

Craig: I have a Ph. D. in architecture and anthropology from the University of Michigan.]

Amory: Craig seems like he knows a lot about a lot.

Ben: He does. Especially about Lakotan culture and history. And an important point he makes is that saying Lakota is almost like saying…southerner. Or midwesterner. Because Lakota covers a ton of different tribes that lived in the area stretching across what is now Wyoming, South Dakota, and a number of other states.

Craig: So I'm a citizen of the Oglala Sioux tribe. And I'm also a citizen of the United States, and this is key because I am not a citizen of the state of South Dakota.

Ben: because, important sidebar, the Supreme Court has put tribes and the country in a category above states. Which have residents, not citizens.

Craig: Oglala Sioux tribe is one of. Uh, actually there's six, uh, Lakotan tribes in the United States, five are in South Dakota, and Lakotan is one of three divisions, the other two being Nakotans and Dakotans. 

Ben: Craig stresses that obviously representing such a large and subdivided group of people is basically impossible. So, feelings about sharing Mato Tipila are as various, Amory, as the names that different groups have called this place over time. And this leads us to another Redditor comment.

Redditor [read by producer] "Devil" places (this, devils falls, etc) are almost always sacred places for native nations. The names were given to push the Christian movement of manifest destiny and denounce natives as devil worshippers]

Amory: Does Craig agree?

Ben: Yup.

Craig: And I just say this every time, anytime you see a landmark with the word devil, or Satan, or hell. It's probably a sacred site to American Indians, to some American Indian tribe, that's a sacred site. And that's what happened here.]

Amory: And white settlers did this to . . . ?

Craig: To degenerate us.

Ben: There are examples all over the U.S. of these kinds of names. And this is where things get really tricky. Because another story that gets told about Mato Tipila,  including by our fun ranger Tyler, is that the Devil’s Tower thing is actually a story about a phrase lost in translation. That basically, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge named the place in 1875 because a Lakota guide gave him a description that sounded like bad god when he was really saying black bear. Craig rejects this story. And when you look around at other locations on the U.S. map, there are a lot of “lost in translation” explanations for white settlers misinterpreting things as "Devil’s something or other." It’s practically its own meme.


Ben: So I think overall, as we try to profile this incredibly unique, nearly thousand foot place, this is what I keep coming back to: It means all kinds of things to all kinds of people. But to everyone, it means something. That’s apparent in the thousands and thousands of posts about it on Reddit and YouTube and TikTok. It isapparent at the KOA campground nearby, where gaggles of tourists are watching the movie every night. It’s true when you talk to people like Tyler, who also watches that movie and does the bat festival and so much more as part of the Park Service’s strained but positive programming schedule.

Tyler: I think Devil's Tower has a pretty special place in my heart. There's no doubt about that. I think, you know, when you come to Devil's Tower, there is a certain mystique power about it. In the summer months, of course, it's very busy and very hectic, but taking those moments in the mornings to just look up for a little while, I think I find myself, yeah, getting to that level of, of kind of transcendence.

Amory: What does it mean to Craig?

Ben: So Craig left me with one final thought. There’s this interesting connection between this place, and the stars. One thing to know: this part of the country? Great for star gazing, by the way. Which is probably part of why in Close Encounters, the starry sky features prominently. In fact at one point, the alien ships basically appear as a constellation that starts to move in the sky. And as you might imagine, the Lakota were stargazing here before most people. And they used the stars a lot in their storytelling. For instance, some native stories say that women-- who were fleeing bears and prayed to their relatives-- were saved by Mato Tiplila rising out of the earth and then they were put into the sky. Seven of these sisters. Which correlates to what we might know as the Pleiades constellation. But in trying to understand the significance of this place, there’s this other mystery about Mato Tipila that Craig wants to solve. In Lakotan, it does have another name. PuTAY-hay-Hee. Grey Buffalo Horn. Craig says that one thing people may be missing is that the sacred place isn’t the butte itself. It’s a place on the map from which you can view the butte. And see something else where the stars and the landscape meet.

Craig: There are certain times of the year where that constellation, when it's set in the western sky, If you're east of the landmark, there would be an arc of locations where you would see the horn of the landmark and the constellation mirroring that horn. So it looked like two horns, two buffalo horns.


Ben: So, can you picture this Amory? One horn is the butte itself, right, Mato Tipila the giant rock.

Amory: OK.

Ben: And one horn is sorta opposite it and that horn is a constellation.

Amory: OK.

Ben: Which in Lakota is itself, by the way, is called the Mato Tipila. And Craig thinks that this special viewing spot, from the north and east — only available for part of the year --gets at the real sacred nature of this place. At least for the Lakota.

Craig:  In Lakotan thought and philosophy the buffalos are called the putay, the putayo yate — the buffalo nation. Those are the ancestors of Lakotans and they live in the underworld and serve this spirits. And it's really symbolic that you have this connection with the underworld where the head would be of the earth and that one horn would be coming up and this other would would be coming down from the quote unquote down from the celestial. So we'd be relating the underworld, this world, and the celestial world, the upper world.

Ben: So whether you see it in the stars or in the rock  or in the ground, Mato Tipila might have this drawing power in part because, simply put: it connects our worlds. And I think that’s a nice thought to end with.

Amory: Yeah. I agree.

Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.


Amory Sivertson Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.



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