Update: Please see the May 17 update below for the Park County Commissioners’ explanation of their resistance to the name changes and a clarification regarding their response to a request by WyoFile for comment — Ed.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names could decide this summer to change two names in Yellowstone National Park that Native Americans say memorialize a racist and a murderer.
Hayden Valley and Mount Doane are names that are “considered to be offensive,” says a proposal before the board. The names should be changed to Buffalo Nations Valley and First Peoples Mountain, respectively, Brandon Sazue, then-chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, wrote in a filing last year.
The Park County Board of Commissioners disagrees.
Hayden Valley is the namesake of Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the geologist who led an expedition into Yellowstone in 1871. Mount Doane takes its name from Gustavus Cheyney Doane, a U.S. Army Cavalry lieutenant who escorted early expeditions by white explorers into Yellowstone. The Board on Geographic Names formalized the two monikers in 1930.
Despite their contributions to American history, the two men’s names should be expunged from official geographic usage because of their actions and beliefs, the tribal proposal says.
“Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden advocated the ‘extermination’ of tribal people in an official government document … published in 1872,” the tribal proposal reads. Doane “led the massacre of Chief Heavy Runner’s Peigan Blackfeet village on the Marias River,” several months before the 1870 Yellowstone expedition. Doane’s men killed 173 persons, only 15 of whom were of fighting age, the application states.
“It is, as many tribal leaders have protested, shameful, that Yellowstone National Park continues to honor a war criminal, Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane, and a white supremacist who advocated for the genocide of indigenous people, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, by retaining their names on major features of Yellowstone National Park,” the proposal states.
It takes about eight months, “on average,” to decide whether a name should be changed, said Lou Yost, executive secretary for domestic names with the agency. That could put the matter before the board this summer, he said in a telephone interview from Reston, Virginia.
At least 28 tribes — including the Northern Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone and Northern Cheyenne — have advocated for the change, but that’s no guarantee the board will agree to their proposal. “Local acceptance of any name is important to the Board,” Yost wrote to the chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association last year. Consequently, the board is expected to consider recommendations — for or against the changes — from area residents, plus some governments and agencies.
“We get input from the county board of commissioners and the state board on geographic names,” Yost said in an interview. “In this case, the National Park Service as well.”
Already one entity has weighed in. Last week Yost received a completed form titled Geographic Name Proposal Recommendation signed by Park County Commission chairman Loren Grosskopf.
On the line proposing the new name Buffalo Nations Valley, a checkmark appears below the word “Reject.” For first Peoples Mountain, “Reject” is checked again. The form included a place for comments, but none were inscribed.
Not Wyoming’s first place-name rodeo
Wyoming and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names have grappled before, with a proposal to change a name deemed offensive by tribes — Devils Tower. The running skirmish between tribes, who hold the iconic butte sacred and wanted it called Bears Lodge, and area residents flared up in 1995.
It continues today with U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney championing a bill that would make the name Devils Tower permanent. The House Committee on Natural Resources passed H.R. 401 in March this year, “protecting the name of one of Wyoming’s most beloved and well-known landmarks,” Cheney said in a statement on her website.
“The name Devils Tower is over a century old and represents one of the most well-known sites in the nation,” Cheney’s statement read. “In addition to its historic importance in our state, Devils Tower attracts crucial tourism and revenue to our communities.”
Cheney’s bill is similar to a bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Barbara Cubin in 1996 and one by U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in 2015. All three affected the federal Board on Geographic Names and its Domestic Names Committee, which decides on names and changes. The committee “has a long-standing policy of deferring action when a matter is being considered by Congress,” the House Committee on Natural Resources majority report on Cheney’s bill reads. “The Wyoming Board of Geographic Names, which serves in an advisory capacity to the BGN, has indicated it will not act on the name change while the matter is being considered by Congress, as it follows the DNC’s policies.”
The minority produced a dissenting report, saying the bill ignores the concern of more than 25 tribes. “While this bill seems quite unassuming on its face, it is actually intended to bypass the serious concerns of local tribes that have long been offended by this erroneous name,” the minority report said.
Whether Cheney’s bill passes or not, it effectively shortstops any change petition, Democrats said. “Usually, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names would embark on a consultation and comment period regarding the name change,’ the minority report reads. “However, the mere introduction of H.R 401 derails this process.”
Arvol Looking Horse, Great Sioux Nation spiritual leader, filed a petition in 2014 to change the name, the report said. Devils Tower was a “botched translation” of Mato Tipila, or Bear Lodge. The mistake was first recorded as Bad God’s Tower, which morphed into Devils Tower, the report says.
Devils Tower is perceived by tribal members as “highly offensive, insulting, disparaging, disrespectful, derogatory, and repugnant,” the petition reads. The name Devils Tower “serves as a constant irritant that causes displeasure, anger, and ongoing resentment in [the tribal] community.”
Compared to the 100-plus year history of the name Devils Tower, the Black Hills area where the feature rises has been the home of indigenous people for “centuries before the creation of the United States of America,” the petition reads.
“To add insult to injury, these tribes do not associate the monument with bad gods or evil spirits in any way,” the minority report reads. “In contrast, it is a very holy site.”
The “Bear Lodge name will not negatively affect local tourism or the economy of Wyoming,” the 2014 petition to rename the tower says. Democrats said tourism worries don’t erase the insult to tribes. “We appreciate the economic impact that Devils Tower offers to the State of Wyoming and the surrounding region, but that does not change the fact that its erroneous name is offensive to many citizens of this country.”
Meanwhile, back in the world’s first national park…
The more recent Yellowstone name-change proposal has now drawn its first detractors. After submitting its form urging rejection of the proposed change, Park County commissioners will decide how to respond to requests that they explain their reasoning. Commissioners last week were not available or did not return phone messages and emails seeking comment.
The agenda for today’s regular commissioners’ meeting contains an item for the board to “discuss and consider response to reasons for objection to name changes,” in Yellowstone.
Park County has so far submitted only a single official comment form, but the Devils Tower controversy rallied many neighbors of the country’s first national monument. Part of their protest focused on the potential change of the name of the “populated place” knowns as Devils Tower, a settlement that includes a U.S. Post Office and a zip code — 82714. A Crook County survey saw 93 percent opposed to changing the name of the summit, 89 percent rejecting the change for the settlement.
“While I do reali[s]e there is a claim of importance to Native American Indians, it is our backyard, our heritage, and part of our culture for over 100 years,” one person wrote. Wrote another; “Personally, I take pride in being from ‘Devils Tower’, Wyoming.” A third said, “How can people who do not even live in the area propose a name change to a populated place?”
Added the Crook County commissioners; “The Tower can be shared by all.”
The board reaches out to the local governments and encourages engagement. “Basically, it’s a ground-up process,” the BGN’s Yost said. “Local acceptance of any name is important to the Board,” he wrote. The changes are allowed under policies set by the Board on Geographic Names, however, which can alter names “asserted to be offensive.”
The National Park Service will make comments to the Board on Geographic Names “when they advise us that the Yellowstone locations in question are on their agenda at a future meeting,” NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson said in an email. “This is based on our policy to not comment publicly until the Board meets.”
After tribes decided in 2014 on Buffalo Nations Valley to replace Hayden Valley and First Peoples Mountain to replace Mount Doane, Great Plains tribal association chairman Sazue, a resident of Fort Thompson, South Dakota, submitted the proposal to the U.S. names board. It published the request on its quarterly review list in December 2017, launching official consideration of the request.
In his time, Hayden called for extermination of Indians “unless they are localized and made to enter upon agricultural and pastoral pursuits,” the petition states. Such statements condone genocide, tribal members say.
The geologist and explorer is best known for advocating for the world’s first national park, which Congress created in 1872, the year after his expedition.
Hayden’s name has been associated since 1886 with rolling meadows stretching through a valley seven miles long and six miles wide between Lake and Canyon villages. The majestic Yellowstone River meanders through that landscape creating a primordial scene of bison, grizzly bears, elk and waterfowl, plus tourist vehicles on the Grand Loop Road.
“If, as Wallace Stegner suggested, the world’s first national park was America’s ‘best idea,’ how do you reconcile having the main thoroughfare of America’s best idea named to honor an individual who proposed the extermination — the genocide — of the land’s original inhabitants?” The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe wrote in a letter to the board.
Doane, a U.S. Army Cavalry soldier, escorted the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition into Yellowstone in 1870, the year before Hayden’s trip. After his expedition in 1871, Hayden proposed the name Mount Doane for a peak on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake. It rises next to Mount Stevenson and Mount Langford, two other white figures in early Yellowstone exploration.
The name Mount Doane has been in use since 1885. At 10,649 feet, it is a wild peak, raking the sky, catching storms and looming over one of the most remote places in the Lower 48.
“There is not, never was, nor ever will be, any justification or place for the names of killers like Doane … to be memorialized,” officials with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe Administration in Lame Deer, Montana wrote in support of the change.
In presenting a declaration to Yellowstone Park officials last Sept. 16, Piikani Nation (formerly Peigan Nation) representatives said their delegation included “descendants of survivors of [the] Marias River Massacre that Doane led.” The tribe wants interpretive signs to be installed recognizing that the park is no longer “Indian-free” as a park superintendent once declared.
The changes would be made “in honor of all Tribal nations that have treaty rights and interests to Greater Yellowstone and those with an ancestral connection to this sacred landscape and our relatives, the Buffalo Nation,” a history that goes back 10,000 years, the petition reads.
The tribes listed below have signed letters, declarations or resolutions, or are members of tribal organizations that have supported changing the names of Hayden Valley to Buffalo Nations Valley and Mount Doane to First Peoples Mountain.
Oglala Sioux Tribe
Yankton Sioux Tribe
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe
Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate
Rosebud Sioux Tribe
Spirit Lake Tribe
Three Affiliated Tribes
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Santee Sioux Tribe
Ponca Tribe of Nebraska
Northern Cheyenne Tribe
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe
Fort Belknap Indian Community Council
Fort Peck Tribes Assiniboine Sioux
Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation of Montana
Shoshone Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation,
UPDATE, May 17 — Park County Commissioners on May 15 answered Jennifer Runyon, a member of the research staff of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, who asked for “a reason why the commissioners are opposed to changing the names of Mount Doane and Hayden Valley.” Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf provided WyoFile with a copy of the board’s response May 16. It reads:
The Park County Commissioners met today and offer the following reasons for opposing the name changes as suggested:
- Attempting to analyze the history of these public figures should be viewed from all perspectives and include consideration of the circumstances happening in the 1800s
- The current names have been used for decades (a century?)
- The public relies upon written history
- We don’t understand the real need to change
- Pride and respect for Park County’s, Yellowstone National Park and our nation’s history
Please take our comments into consideration.
Loren Grosskopf, Chairman, Park County Board of Commissioners.”
Also, commissioner Grosskopf responded to WyoFile’s May 7, request for comment on May 7, but his email apparently went into a spam folder and wasn’t discovered until May 17.
Here is commissioner Grosskopf’s May 7 response to WyoFile’s request for explanation of the board’s position against changing the Yellowstone monikers.
“From: Loren Grosskopf
Sent: Monday, May 7, 2018 3:50 PM
To: Angus Thuermer Jr.
Subject: Re: Park county opinion on Yellowstone names
I will get back to you. We will put some explanation on paper to document our decision.
Loren Grosskopf, Park County Commissioner.”
Commissioner Jake Fulkerson also responded to a request for comment. His response, below, also was discovered in a spam folder on May 17:
Commissioners French, Tilden and Livingston are much more passionate than I on the matter. I recommend you contact one of them.
Jake Fulkerson, Vice Chair
Park County Board of County Commissioners
Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone”
WyoFile regrets the miscommunication with the Park County Board of Commissioners and any misrepresentation that may have arisen as a result. Any role it played in the miscommunication was inadvertent.
In all, Thuermer made six phone calls to Park County commissioners and sent five emails. — Ed.