One of the main features of Yellowstone Park is its abundant thermal activity. Sitting on top of an active volcano, the constantly changing landscape features more than 500 geysers and numerous hot springs. From what I had seen of similar places elsewhere in the world (such as the Maori village of Rotarua in New Zealand), I guessed that the area must have been of significance for the Native American tribes, a place teeming with history and legends. But, as I travelled around the park, I looked in vain for any connection between the Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park. So I decided to dig a little deeper and find out why not.
History of the Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park
Despite the lack of historic names in the park, and the fact that I only saw one reference to Native Americans on the numerous information boards, it is clear that the region has been inhabited for a very long time. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been using the area for at least 11,000 years. Prehistoric tools and other artefacts have been uncovered, and many areas show signs of long-standing human activity. In more recent times several tribes are known to have used, and lived in, the area now occupied by Yellowstone National Park.
But when the park was created in 1872 there seems to have been a concerted effort to remove the local people from the land, and to suppress all evidence of their local history and legends. It is likely that this was partly because, at the time, Native Americans were being encouraged to move into reservations. But, additionally, the park authorities wanted to attract visitors, and to reassure them that the park was “safe”.
So they set about creating some myths of their own. The first was that the park was untamed wilderness, waiting to be discovered for the first time. And the second was that Native Americans were afraid of the geyser regions, and avoided them. As part of this myth making they gave fearsome sounding names to the springs and geysers, such as Blood Geyser or Abyss Pool.
Hot Springs and Sacred Places
In fact the Indian tribes in Yellowstone National Park were not afraid of the springs. Quite the opposite: there is evidence that they made use of the springs for cooking food, and bathed in the water for medicinal purposes. On occasion they also buried their dead in the bubbling water.
And, as I originally suspected, the place was regarded as having spiritual significance. Certainly it is true that they believed it was full of spirits. But these spirits were not malevolent – as maintained by the modern myth-makers – but friendly and helpful. Native American names for Yellowstone invariably referred to its thermal properties, such as “many smoke” or “place of hot water”. More explicitly, the Crow nation called the geysers bide-mahpe (“sacred or powerful water”).
Native American Legends Associated with Yellowstone Park
The suppression of Native American legends associated with the park and its springs was part of the attempt to remove traces of earlier residents. There is also a suggestion that Native Americans themselves were reluctant to share their tribal stories. This may have been for religious reasons, but could also have been a symptom of the mistrust that existed between the native people and the settlers.
Given the astonishing nature of the landscape, with tall geysers and hot water steaming out of the ground, it would be surprising if there hadn’t been any attempts by early people to explain them. In fact, legends do exist, although in some cases their authenticity has been questioned. For instance, Ella Clark collected a number of tales for her book Indian Legends of the Northern Rockies, published in 1966. However, her methods were later questioned, and it is known that the stories were substantially edited.
The legends described here are ones that are considered to be genuine.
How the Yellowstone River Was Formed
One of Ella Clark’s stories that is thought to be authentic relates to the creation of the Yellowstone and Snake rivers. A hungry traveller begged for food from an old woman he met in the mountains. She offered to cook him some fish, but warned him not to touch her basket. But the traveller was curious, and went to investigate the basket. He knocked it over, spilling water and fish down the hillside.
The traveller piled up rocks in an attempt to stop the water, thus creating the Upper Falls. He tried to dam the stream further down: this became the Lower Falls. The water flowed on, to form the Yellowstone River, with several subsequent dams, including the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River. The fish basket became the Yellowstone Lake (and the old woman herself turned out to be Mother Earth).
Old Woman’s Grandchild
This legend tells how a Crow hunter named Old Woman’s Grandchild created some of Yellowstone’s geysers. Old Woman’s Grandchild was a powerful hunter who killed many animals, and turned them into mountains. But when he slew a large buffalo it was transformed into a geyser, and it wouldn’t stop puffing out hot air. So the hunter killed a mountain lion and placed it nearby. This became a new geyser, breathing steam onto the buffalo and so stopping it from coming back to life.
The Water Beast of Overlook Mountain
Another Crow legend concerns the creation of steam vents around Yellowstone Lake. A thunderbird snatched up an Indian and took him to a nest on Overlook Mountain (on the side of the lake), wanting help to fight a giant beast that lived in the water and came out to eat the bird’s young.
The Indian heated up rocks and boiled water, then waited for the beast to climb up to the nest. As the monster approached, he poured the rocks and water into its mouth, and it fell back into the lake, steam pouring from its mouth. That was the end of the water beast, and the beginning of the steam vents around the lakeside.
Native Americans and Yellowstone Park Today
The relationship between Native Americans and Yellowstone Park is now beginning to be re-evaluated. Much of my information (including the three legends above) came from an informative paper by Lee H Whittlesey, published in 2002. And the National Parks Service has lots of historical information on its website.
I also discovered (too late for my visit) that you can get day tours looking at the park from a Native American perspective, exploring in particular the significance of the animals that live there. Clearly the history is there: it is just a matter of finding it!