Fear of Yellowstone
by Thomas James
One of the persistent myths about Native American attitudes regarding Yellowstone is that they were afraid of this place and avoided it. The stories passed to us by early Anglo explorers and park administrators report that the geysers, fumaroles, and other thermal features frightened the native peoples. It is clear this myth is false based on the more than 1,900 archeological sites so far identified within park boundaries and the numerous accounts from many different
tribes of how they interacted with and revered this place. This misconception was perpetuated by early park administrators to further the objectives of promoting the park as a tourist destination, off-limits to its original inhabitants. The myth that the Native Americans of the area were superstitious and scared of being near the “evil spirits” of the geysers was a convenient one. As Euro-Americans began removing native peoples from this landscape, this falsehood was an often repeated rationalization. This idea is reinforced by one of the earliest written accounts of the region from William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:
At the head of this river the nativs [sic] give an account that there is frequently herd [sic] a loud noise, like Thunder, which makes the earth Tremble, they State that they seldom go there because their children Cannot sleep—-and Conceive it possessed of spirits, who were averse that men Should be near them (Haines 1974, Whittlesey 2002).
The myth of native fear of this landscape is one of the earliest European American historical accounts we have of Yellowstone, given by a man who never set foot in the park itself. Building off of this account from Clark, the myth has persisted through time and continues to be occasionally referenced with seriousness.
During an 1883 trip into the park, Hamilcar Hollister reports he was told by Native Americans that whites should not be allowed in the park, lest they fall in league with the devils that inhabit the thermal areas and end up destroying all native peoples (Hollister 1912, Whittlesey 2002). It remains unclear whether Hollister’s account was truly a belief of regional native peoples or a “tall tale” conjured by his guide (or himself), which he passed on in his memoirs years after visiting. Perhaps the most prolific work done on Native Americans in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was done by Äke Hultkrantz. He also perpetuated the myth that Native Americans were afraid of the thermal features in the park (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002).
What we do know is that soon after the foundation of the park Native American faces became sparse. Over the course of a decade all of the natural features in the park were given Anglicized names and native nomenclature was cast aside. However, the native place names were not totally forgotten. Many tribes have stories, several of which give names for specific features.
The Kiowa, who later moved to the southern plains, place their origin in Yellowstone. Their legend states that when the earth was created, there was no homeland for the Kiowa. Doh Ki, the Kiowa creator deity, offered the Kiowa a place to live if they were willing to make an arduous journey to a barren wasteland filled with steaming sulfurous vents and hot water bursting from the ground. After the Kiowa completed their journey, Doh Ki gathered them around a boiling pool of water which crashed and thundered. Called Tung Sa’u Dah, which means “the place of hot water,” he offered them this place as a homeland if any were willing to jump into the pool. One brave Kiowa jumped in, and when he emerged the Kiowa’s new homeland had been transformed into the most lush and abundant place on earth (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002, Whittlesey 2002). The spring which the Kiowa called Tó-sál-dàu is now known as Dragon’s Mouth Spring, located near Mud Volcano.
The Shoshone tell a story about the creation of the park’s landscape. Coyote, in the guise of a hungry traveler, asked Mother Earth in the form of an old woman to boil some fish for him to eat. The woman agreed, on the condition he not touch her basket of fish. As soon as she turned her back he knocked over her basket, the spilled contents turning into Yellowstone Lake. Water flowing from the newly created lake formed the Yellowstone and Snake rivers. Coyote attempted to stop the flow of the water with rocks, which became the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River and Shoshone Falls on the Snake River (Clark 1966, Nabokov and Loendorf 2002; Whittlesey 2002).
The Crow describe “Old Woman’s Grandchild,” who battled many animals and turned them into mountains and hills once defeated. After he killed a bison and a mountain lion, he created two of the park geysers, by placing these animals into the ground near one another where they still breath out hot air (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002; Whittlesey 2002). The Crow also report that steam vents around Yellowstone Lake were formed when a Crow man heated rocks and threw them into the mouth of a massive water beast, killing it and saving the lives of Thunderbird’s offspring (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002, Whittlesey 2002). A Crow man named Hunts-to-Die, born well before the establishment of the park, relayed stories of how the tribal members believed benevolent and helpful spirits were associated with the geysers (Whittlesey 2002). Hunts-to-Die’s oral history is among the earliest to contradict the stories that Native American’s feared the geysers.
As mentioned before, over 1,900 archeological sites are known in the park. The shocking part of this is that only 3% of the park has yet been surveyed by professional archeologists. If archeological site density remains constant over the entire park, we can extrapolate there could be tens of thousands of sites in the park. Regardless of how many sites are actually in the park, the 3% surveyed shows a site density that completely puts to rest any idea that people were afraid of this place.
As you travel through the park in awe and wonder of the landscape around you, remind yourself that people have used this landscape for over 11,500 years and likely felt the same overwhelming feelings of awe. They hunted here, gathered here, and lived their lives here. They probably all experienced fear at some point—of cold, of animals, of scarcity in winter—but the landscape itself did not frighten them. Yellowstone was a familiar and inspiring place to live and explore.
Last updated: April 10, 2019