Tribes face resistance in effort to change Yellowstone place names

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By Angus M. Thuermer, WyoFile.com

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.

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden led the first federal expedition to Yellowstone in 1871.

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.

Mt. Doane was named in honor of Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane.

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 Devil’s Tower vote was 20-13 along party lines with Democrats on the losing end. The bill has a 57 percent chance of being enacted, according to Skopos Labs, a firm that tracks legislation.

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.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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