Mako Sica: Naming the Badlands

a historic black and white photograph shows the original park sign reading "entering badlands national park"
The name "Badlands" has been around for a long time, from its use in Lakota culture to its spot on the original entrance sign pictured here to its place on NPS webpages today.

NPS Photo

What’s in a name?

The name Badlands National Park poses an interesting question: why would you try to entice people to visit a park by calling it bad? In truth, the name is an homage to people that lived in the Badlands before it was a national park. For hundreds of years, the Lakota people have called this area mako sica, which literally translates to “bad lands.” When early French fur trappers passed through this area, they called the area les mauvaises terres a traveser (‘bad lands to travel across’). Since the French trappers spent time with the Lakota, it is likely that the French name is derived directly from the Lakota one. But why? What made this area deserve a “bad” name?

The Badlands presents many challenges to easy travel. When it rains in the Badlands, the wet clay becomes slick and sticky, making it very difficult to cross. The jagged canyons and buttes that cover the landscape also make it hard to navigate. The winters are cold and windy, the summers are hot and dry, and the few water sources that exist are normally muddy and unsafe to drink. These factors make the land difficult to survive in, and evidence of early human activity in the Badlands points to seasonal hunting rather than permanent habitation.

One final fun fact about the name of Badlands National Park: In 1922, when Badlands was first proposed as a national park, the suggested name was Wonderland National Park!

Part of a series of articles titled History & Culture in the Badlands.

Badlands National Park

Last updated: March 9, 2021