Native Americans seek to rename Yellowstone peak honoring massacre perpetrator

Activists also target valley named for advocate of extermination amid nationwide fight to reject legacy of racism

Mount Doane is a 10,500ft peak in Yellowstone national park, named for Lt Gustavus C Doane, a US army cavalry captain and explorer. In January 1870, he led a massacre that killed around 175 Blackfeet people, and he continued to brag about the incident throughout his life.

Hayden Valley, a broad valley that holds Yellowstone Lake, was christened for Dr Ferdinand V Hayden, a geologist and surveyor. He also advocated for the extermination of tribal people who refused to comply with federal dictates.

A group of Native Americans say such names can no longer stand. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, an organization of tribal chairmen of 16 Sioux tribes from Nebraska and the Dakotas, is pursuing an application to change Mount Doane to First Peoples Mountain and Hayden Valley to Buffalo Nations Valley.

The proposal echoes moves to take down monuments commemorating Confederate leaders and proponents of slavery. And it mirrors other efforts across the US – and online – to rename landmarks bearing appellations rooted in racism.

“We’re not against certain names,” said William Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, who supports the Yellowstone renaming. “But we’re not for names where individuals have been involved with genocide, where elders and children have been killed and there have been some traumatic events in our history that don’t meet standards of honor.”

The US Board on Geographic Names has received a slew of requests since the early 1990s related to the word “squaw”, which has an unclear history but is now recognized as insulting, and has given new names to everything from mountains to waterways and neighborhood streets. Notably, in 2013, it changed Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Arizona to Piestewa Peak, after Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat serving in the US military.

“We’d be driving down the freeway and saying: ‘Oh my God, why do we still have to look at this disparaging name?’” said Jack Jackson Jr, a lawyer and former Arizona state senate member whose father, Jack Jackson Sr, drafted several name-change bills during his 15-year career in the Arizona legislature. “Native people are always facing disparaging names and mascots.”

In 2016, the board approved changing the name of Harney Peak, a mountain in South Dakota named after the US army general William S Harney, who led troops in an 1855 battle against the Brule Sioux and killed women and children as well as warriors. Its new title is Black Elk Peak, for a man believed to be a survivor of the battle.

At Yellowstone, the name change request has so far met with resistance. Local county representatives voted against it in early May, and in a motion the county commissioner, Tim French, said a name change was like “trying to change history”. The commissioners’ opposition could prove fatal. “The board on geographic names places a good deal of emphasis on local opinion,” said Lou Yost, its executive secretary.

The board, which meets monthly, has not yet scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue because it is waiting to hear from other state and federal officials.

Renaming efforts move more quickly online, where another grassroots effort is taking hold. The organization NativesOutdoors is both an outdoor apparel company and an Instagram account with 18,000 followers. The founder, Len Necefer, of the Navajo tribe, has been working for years to encourage Instagrammers to use original tribal names in the app’s geotagging feature instead of Americanized names.

Necefer himself used the Facebook geotagging system to identify four mountains surrounding the Navajo Nation, considered sacred boundaries, by their traditional names rather than the colonized terms.

In Colorado, he used the names Sisnaajiní and Dibé Nitsaa instead of Blanca Peak and Hesperus Mountain. To the west, he geotagged Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks as Dook’o’oosłiid. And in New Mexico, he tagged himself on Tsoodził rather than Mount Taylor.

“The creation of the first national parks, like Yellowstone and Glacier (national park), was predicated on the forced removal of indigenous populations from these areas,” Necefer told Outside Online earlier this year. “It created this myth that these are untouched wilderness areas.”

Olga Kreimer contributed reporting


Jason Begay in Missoula, Montana

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'It's my homeland': the trailblazing Native lawmaker fighting fossil fuels
Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, has become a powerful voice for US public lands

Jimmy Tobias

15, May, 2019 @5:35 PM

Article image
US tribe fights use of treated sewage to make snow on holy peaks
The Hopi tribe is taking on an Arizona ski resort over its use of artificial snow: ‘People compare it to baptizing a baby with reclaimed water’

Emery Cowan in Flagstaff, Arizona

15, Feb, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Joshua Tree national park announces closure after trees destroyed amid shutdown
Maintenance and sanitation problems also reported 18 days after government shutdown furloughed the vast majority of park staff

Julia Carrie Wong

10, Jan, 2019 @1:48 AM

Article image
Native Americans offer to educate Covington Catholic staff and students
Leaders sent letter to school seeking to ‘build understanding’ after students were filmed in apparent confrontation

Vivian Ho in San Francisco

25, Jan, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘Heal the past’: first Native American confirmed to oversee national parks
The confirmation of Charles F. Sams III marks a symbolic moment for many Indigenous communities

Hallie Golden

20, Nov, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
'Bad things happen in the woods': the anxiety of hiking while black
Three African American hikers describe the fears and stereotypes they have faced – and why they love hitting the trails

Candice Pires

13, Jul, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
The treasure hunters on a deadly quest for an eccentric's $2m bounty
With only a riddle as a guide, four people have died seeking a bounty supposedly hidden in the Rockies. But is it all a hoax?

Samuel Gilbert in Santa Fe, New Mexico

02, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Grand Canyon is our home. Uranium mining has no place here | Carletta Tilousi
The Havasupai resided in and around Grand Canyon for many centuries. This region is sacred – that is why we oppose the pollution of our land and water

Carletta Tilousi

26, Jun, 2017 @11:25 AM

Article image
Yellowstone renames mountain linked to massacre of Native Americans
Peak renamed First Peoples Mountain was known as Mount Doane after Gustavus Doane who helmed an attack that killed at least 173 people in 1870

Victoria Bekiempis

14, Jun, 2022 @3:08 PM

Article image
'More valuable than gold': Yellowstone businesses prepare to fight mining
Around Yellowstone national park, mining companies anticipate the end of the Obama-era moratorium, but local businesses are fighting back

Elliott D. Woods in Livingston, Montana

16, Jul, 2017 @11:00 AM