At this point in America’s history, people know the actual narrative behind Thanksgiving and recognize the good, bad, and ugly interactions between European settlers and Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving for me has morphed into a holiday to be thankful and reflect, and rather than repeat the shameful tale of colonization, I thought it would be neat to do a short “did you know” post regarding a different aspect of Indigenous history. Specifically, did you know that many US National Parks had traditional names and folklore behind them, and were once well-maintained by Indigenous groups?
One such example is Yellowstone National Park. I use the past tense to talk about traditional names and folklore because if the elders of a tribe die without passing on their knowledge to the younger generation, that information can be lost forever. A short piece from 2002 titled Native Americans, The Earliest Interpreters: What is Known About Their Legends and Stories of Yellowstone National Park and the Complexities of Interpreting Them suggests that many original stories have already been lost. Some published “Native American” storybooks such as Little Ta-Wish: Indian Legends from Geyserland and Blackfeather: Trapper Jim’s Fables of Sheepeater Indians in Yellowstone have been called out for including counterfeit tales. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the original book by Nabokov & Loendorf that includes what many people believe to be true Yellowstone stories. However, the 2002 piece by Whittlesey includes some excerpts from it, like the one below.
“A Crow narrative…concerns the mythic deeds of a character named ‘Old Woman’s Grandchild’ and how at least two of Yellowstone’s geysers were supposedly created. This Crow said that in one of the thermal regions of the park, Old Woman’s Grandchild fought many beasts and turned them into mountains and hills after he killed them. A large buffalo bull that he killed was turned into a geyser formation that continued to blow out hot air. Near it he placed a mountain lion, also a geyser formation blowing hot air, in order to keep the buffalo bull from coming back to life.” – American Indians and Yellowstone National Park: A Documentary Overview
Twenty-six existing tribes have ancestral connections to the land called Yellowstone National Park, but each called it by a different name. Although Indigenous peoples are often seen as one singular group, evidently each tribe has unique culture and knowledge. According to Indian Country Today, the Crow referred to Yellowstone as “land of the burning ground” or “land of vapors” while Blackfeet labeled it “many smoke”. For the Flatheads it was “smoke from the ground” and for the Kiowa is was “the place of hot water”.
Other national parks such as Yosemite have similar histories. Although Yosemite was described by conservationists as a “wild park”, places such as these were kept for generations and were wonderful grounds for hunting and fishing. Indigenous peoples also played games such as lacrosse on the land, gambled, and held a large annual mourning ceremony from September to October that allowed them to connect with the dead. During fall, they would burn Yosemite’s dry grass to keep the meadows open. More information on American wilderness and its history can be read in Joy Porter’s book, Land and Spirit in Native America, published in 2012.
I hope that you found this post illuminating and not bleak and certainly not condemning. History is full of war and sadness but I think it is also full of lessons and examples of harmony. I mean, Indigenous people lived in close proximity to hot geysers that would explode on a regular basis but instead they thought of it as a great place to fish! Anyway, I hope that you find a reason to be grateful on this day and if nothing else it’s a day that we can all put work aside and be one with ourselves. Cheers from the Green Queen!
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