Tribes Reject Yellowstone Park Names Honoring War Criminal and White Supremacist

On Saturday, September 16, under blustery skies and a new dusting of snow on Yellowstone’s peaks, representatives of eight Tribes demanded name changes for features in the Park, Mount Doane and Hayden Valley, that had been named for war criminal Lieutenant Gustavus Cheney Doane and white supremacist Ferdinand Hayden. Tribal leaders gave a signed statement to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) officials near the Roosevelt Arch, a famous symbol of the Park — built for President Teddy Roosevelt’s grand entrance in 1903, but still a major entrance for visitors today. The submission of the statement to YNP officials followed a ceremony involving drumming, singing, and prayer.

The event was followed by a September 19 letter to the US Board of Geographic Names, an arm of the US Geological Survey (USGS) from the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, representing all 16 sovereign Indian Nations in the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The letter reiterated, for the third time, the request for the name of Mount Doane to be changed to First People’s Mountain, and for Hayden Valley to be renamed Buffalo Nations Valley (link). All tribes have treaty rights and/or ancestral connections to Greater Yellowstone, and have been recognized by the Department of Interior as part of the “Associated Tribes of Yellowstone.”

The ball is now in the court of the National Park Service and USGS. Whether they will rename these landmarks is anyone’s guess. But ample precedent has been set in recent years and months with the removal of Confederate statues and flags from community centers across the country — a clear public rejection of a history of racist oppression.   

At the gathering, Lee Juan Tyler, Councilman of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of Idaho, sang for the first time a song celebrating the diversity of life. He composed it on the long drive to Gardiner, Montana, from Fort Hall, Idaho. (A podcast interview of Lee Juan Tyler will soon be posted on the Grizzly Times site,  For the Shoshone Bannock, the land Lee Juan traversed to reach the gathering had long been home — and not just Yellowstone Park, but a huge swath of country stretching from southern Idaho to the Canadian border. You might think that the National Park Service would have contacted people like Lee Juan’s ancestors before naming features after white supremacist new-comers like Hayden and ax murderer Doane.    

Even though I have considered Greater Yellowstone home for over 40 years, and thought myself reasonably informed, I was stunned to discover the dark underbelly of Hayden and Doane, who are still widely viewed as scientific giants involved in first documenting for science Yellowstone’s unique geothermal features and spectacular landscape. In fact, the Washburn/Doane expedition of 1870 and Hayden expedition of 1871 are remembered as major contributors to the 1872 congressional designation of Yellowstone as the nation’s — and world’s — first Park.

Since the event, I have read everything I can get my hands on about these men, concluding, as Tribes did: Hayden and Doane’s names must be removed from the Park.    

In a formal ceremony led by Stan Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation (part of the Blackfeet Confederacy), Tribes presented representatives of Yellowstone Park with a request to change the name of Mount Doane. Lieutenant Gustavus Doane had played a leading role in an 1870 massacre, remembered as the Baker Massacre for its commander who was too drunk to fight. In effect, Doane took over, directing the mid-winter slaughter of over 200 Blackfeet, almost all women and children, many sick with smallpox. Authorities admitted that only 15 men were of fighting age, and the rest were elders, women and children “none older than twelve years and many of them in their mother’s arms.” Most of the remaining able-bodied men in the band were hunting for buffalo at the time.

Doane and the Massacre of Blackfeet on the Marias

The Blackfeet band’s Chief, Heavy Runner, was gunned down as he tried to offer government papers to the army showing that the band was friendly to white settlers. In fact, according to orders, the army was not after Heavy Runner’s band at all, but rather a different Blackfeet band, whose braves had killed a white rancher. (Why the US army directed the killing of an entire band for the death of one rancher raises other disturbing questions).  

Although Baker and Doane were informed by scouts that this was not the band they were authorized to attack, they did not care, they just wanted to kill Indians. This was their “glory moment” in the whites’ war to cleanse the West of native peoples.  Despite ample firepower, Doane ordered the killing by ax of as many as eight Indians he had taken prisoner.  Doane recalls this day in a letter: “I was the first and last man in the [Piikani] camp January 23, 1870. Greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by US troops.”

History has left us many first-hand accounts by Indians and whites of the gruesome events of that day (link). A 21 year old Corporal, Dan Starr, one of Doane’s ax murderers said this: “Baker had made known the paramount feature of his military policy when he announced as a motto, ‘ Nits make lice.’ This was the customary way of indicating that children were not to be spared.”

One of the most powerful, albeit fictionalized, accounts of the atrocities can be found in Fools Crow, penned by author James Welch, a Blackfeet who is descended from one of those killed:

“First there was the smoke, only slightly darker than the gray air. It rose from behind a bluff where the river curved to the south. The sun was behind it, and it looked orange and sharp-edged…. It had a smell not of smoke but of burnt things, and the smell was heavy in the air…. Soon, around the bluff, we saw the remains of the camp. There were no fires visible but the smoke was darker and thicker. It rose from many places until it became a cloud above the south bank of the river….

I [Fools Crow, the protagonist] began to pick out the blackened lumps that emitted the smoke. Between the lumps, the snow was still white. Then a small wind blew the smoke toward me and the snow became yellow and dirty and the smell hit my nostrils, the smell of burnt skin. I could almost taste it…. The black lumps were lodges that had been burned. A dog lay in the snow a few paces away. Most of his hair had been burned off and his tongue was black against the white teeth…. Something else was lying in a patch of blackened, melted snow … an infant, and its head was black and hairless. Specks of black ash lay in its wide eyes…. I began to pick out the other bodies. Most of them had been thrown onto the burning lodges but they were not all black like the infant. There were scraps of clothing that hadn’t burned. There was skin and hair and eyes. There were teeth and bones and arms and legs. One old woman lay on top on one of the smoking lumps, only the underside of her skin dress burned. Her feet were bare … purple welts on her legs where she had slashed herself a long time ago in mourning a lost one.”

Needless-to-say, Doane never repented for his involvement in the atrocities committed that day. Rather, after the passage of twenty-one years, he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to parlay his involvement in the massacre into appointment as the first superintendent of Yellowstone Park. In an 1891 letter he boasted: “I remember the day when we slaughtered the Piegans, and how it occurred to me, as I sat down on the bank of the Marias and watched the stream of their blood, which ran down on the surface of the frozen river over half a mile, that the work we were then doing would be rewarded as it has been.” 

Remembering this chilling history in the recent Gardiner ceremony was Blackfeet Councilman Tim Davis, or Running Weasel, who is descended from one of those slaughtered in the Marias Massacre.   

Tribal Leaders enter Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Brad Orsted.

The Case Against Hayden

Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, for whom Hayden Valley is named, was a well-known Civil War doctor with a deep interest in geology and a keen sense of Yellowstone’s economic possibilities, especially with the involvement of Northern Pacific Railroad. He was involved in numerous exploratory and scientific expeditions across the West from 1859 to 1878.

Of particular importance here is his expedition into Yellowstone in 1871 that helped promote designation of the Park a year later. Painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, who were part of this expedition, helped convey the magic and splendor of the Park to decision-makers back east. Doane went along for part of the trip as a military escort, documenting portions of the Midway Geyser Basin near Old Faithful.

But Hayden was more complicated than most history books convey. Importantly, he believed that Indians were lesser beings than whites, and argued that if they did not willingly move onto reservations and become farmers, they should be killed.

He wrote: “If extermination is the result of non-compliance, then compulsion is an act of mercy” — basically greenlighting genocide. Affirming his identity as a white supremacist, Hayden wrote in his book North America: “Equally incontestable is the pre-eminence, both intellectual and moral, of the white race, which thus forms a natural aristocracy in the truest sense of the word.”

Hayden, like many others of his day, believed in “cleansing” the West of indigenous people, especially in the case of the nation’s first park. The Park’s early superintendents were in full agreement that the Park should be “Indian-free.” This meant rounding up Indians who would not go willingly to reservations, and sending them, mostly, to prison.

This, in fact, happened to the great great grandfather of Louise Dixey, Shoshone Bannock Cultural Resources Director, who told the chilling story at Saturday’s gathering.

Buffalo Nations Valley and First People’s Mountain

The Tribes assembled in Gardiner formally requested that Hayden Valley be renamed Buffalo Nations Valley in honor of the vast herds of buffalo that again roam there — up from just 23 individuals at the turn of the last century. They also requested that Mount Doane be renamed First People’s Mountain.

Tribal spokespeople pointed out that the many pull-outs on the road through Hayden Valley offer unparalleled opportunities to reinterpret the landscape featuring ancient Indian tales of native peoples’ lifeways – a landscape that was far from the untouched wilderness mythologized in documents designating Yellowstone Park.   

As previously mentioned, three requests have been made by Tribes to remove the names of Doane and Hayden from Park features. A similar ask was sent to Superintendent Wenk of Yellowstone National Park in 2014 by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents 11 tribes in the northern Rockies. Wenk took five months to respond, dismissively noting that individuals could submit suggestions for new names on the Park website. Huh? This, in response to a request by 11 sovereign Nations?

Let us hope that after the recent powerful event in the Park, that officials treat this request with the seriousness and respect it deserves. Yellowstone’s Deputy Superintendent Patrick Kenney, who received the signed request from Chief Stan Grier, emphasized that his agency would consider the proposal carefully, but then noncommittally added: “We came today to listen, learn and hear your perspective.” Still, he did say he looked forward to continuing a dialogue with Tribal leaders.

There is precedence in Yellowstone Park for changing offensive names. Officials replaced the derogatory name of “Squaw Lake” with “Indian Pond.” And the National Park Service under the Obama administration changed the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Denali, the mountain’s ancient Kuyokon name meaning “high one” – appropriate for the highest peak in North America.

Name Changes as Part of Healing and Cultural Understanding

Chief Grier emphasized that the tribal representatives sought “healing, unity and cultural understanding.” He added: “What more needs to be explained? You have a major area of Yellowstone National Park named after an individual who advocated genocide. Period. And this is the world’s first national park, not a city park with a statue. And further, this is our land.”

Brandon Sazue, Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, offered this: “We come here for reconciliation, not with our fists in in the air, no bows and arrows, but with open hearts. I stood at Standing Rock, I got arrested. I want to look back on this day with this: ‘I stood in Yellowstone, we did something for the betterment of everybody, and changed two names…’ Let’s be on the right side of history, and move forward together.”

The proposal to change these names is supported by noted historians Paul Wylie and Dr. Cornel West. In fact, Wylie, who authored Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre, said: “Gustavus Cheney Doane was not worthy of having a mountain named for him, then or now…” Dr. West of Harvard said: “I stand in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters in your demands to change the names in Yellowstone from war criminals to humane and freedom-loving people.” 

Imminent Legislation for Grizzly Bear Protection

The Tribes represented at Saturday’s ceremony, among many others, also oppose stripping Yellowstone’s grizzly bears of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections—i.e., “delisting” this population. A huge banner featuring a photo of a grizzly and the words “Say No to Trophy Hunting,” signified the importance of their sacred relationships with grizzlies, and served as backdrop for much of the proceedings in the Gardiner Community Center.

This public statement reflects the spirit of a recent treaty, formally named “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration.” This aspirational and affirmative statement has been signed by 170 different Tribes from the US and Canada, making it the most widely supported treaty in Indian history. The treaty recognizes that Tribes across North America revere the Grizzly as kin and healers and view killing grizzlies for sport as an anathema.

Not surprisingly, 17 Tribes, traditional societies, and individual spiritual leaders are plaintiffs in lawsuits seeking to restore ESA protections and stop state-sponsored trophy hunting in the wake of a federal decision in June to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Soon, a bill is expected to be introduced in Congress that would make provisions of the Grizzly Bear Treaty into federal law. Importantly, the bill would go further than simply reiterating the spiritual and cultural value of grizzly bears to Indian people. As demanded in the Treaty, the bill would give Tribes a meaningful rather than token seat at the table in decisions determining the fate of the grizzly. This could lead to new co-management arrangements with Tribes related to grizzlies: such agreements have proven to be successful with other wildlife (link). The bill also would require examination of suitable habitat on tribal lands where grizzlies could be reintroduced.     

What’s in a Name?

Some have asked what all the fuss is about. Hayden and Doane compiled legitimate and, at the time, important scientific information about Yellowstone’s geyser basins and geography. And, some say, these men were critical to substantiating arguments for designating the nation’s first park.

Some say, too, that even if these men said terrible things about Indians, at least Hayden had no blood on his hands, and both were products of a time when Indians were widely thought by whites to be members of an inferior race.

But, everything is wrong with letting these names remain. Words matter. Historical context does not excuse genocide and atrocity. And, to Indian people, place names are of particular importance, especially when they typically denote profound and ancient relationships between people and the land. Vine Deloria, Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, observed that most Indians embrace “spatial conceptions of history,” in which places and their names are central. For Indian peoples, the past is imbedded in the bones of the earth and in the subtleties of landscape and seasons.  Knowledge of place is closely linked to knowledge of self.

Acclaimed author N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) wrote that “[the Indian] is deeply invested in the earth, committed to it both in his consciousness and in his instinct. The sense of place is paramount. Only in reference to the earth can he persist in his identity.”

Even though the federal government officially recognizes only 26 Associated Tribes of Yellowstone, many more tribes came and went through this ecosystem over the millennia. Artifacts from Yellowstone were traded widely; points made of obsidian quarried from Obsidian Cliffs in Yellowstone Park have been found in Hopewell Villages in Ohio.

All of this explains why the Hopi Bear Society joined as litigants in the case contesting delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears despite Arizona’s Hopi mesas being 450 miles away from Yellowstone. Not only has the grizzly bear been central to Hopi tradition and practices, Hopi Bear Society leaders have confirmed that certain pictographs in the Yellowstone ecosystem are of Hopi origin.

So, why don’t Yellowstone Park officials invite concerned Tribes to a process for renaming features – and not just the offensive ones — to share their deeper meanings with modern visitors? Or at least offer Indian place names in addition to the European ones? Why doesn’t the Park Service work with native peoples to reinterpret the landscape from an Indian perspective, rather than locking the history of the Park into the frame of “discovery” by white explorers, as is the case today?

Yellowstone’s Human History as Fascinating as its Wildlife

As humans, we are naturally interested in the lifeways and traditions of other people. What normal person is not fascinated by the fact that ancient peoples navigated the Rockies during the Pleistocene in company with woolly mammoths, dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats? How did people manage in an often forbidding but also verdant and always spiritual landscape?

No less interesting is the survival of native people in the northern Rockies more recently, as they traded for horses with the Comanche in the south and acquired European guns from the Blackfeet in the north. Yellowstone country was, at the time just prior to European contact, in an enormous state of flux, with the Sioux displaced from the Midwest, the Blackfeet from the north, and the Shoshone from the west and south.  

Why don’t we have interpretive signs all over the Park explaining this vibrant complex human history, which is every bit as fascinating as the ecology of the bison, grizzly bear and wolf? Why doesn’t the Park Service hire Tribal people to help educate visitors about the continuing spiritual significance of Yellowstone and the role their ancestors played in this unique landscape?

Such moves could enrich the experience of the 4 million plus Park visitors and provide meaningful employment for native people.  Of course, genocide would necessarily be a big part of the lesson – as it should be.  

My Own Doane

None of us are blameless in the matter of atrocities in word or deed. My Willcox ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the late 1600’s where they started a paper mill named Ivy Mills. Among other things, they manufactured the first paper money used to pay the Continental Army when troops overwintered in nearby Valley Forge. Ben Franklin bought paper there too. The stone ruins of the mill are now the centerpiece of a state historical site.

At the foot of the Willcox cemetery, with its large granite headstones for various Willcox relatives, lie unmarked graves of their slaves – no one knows how many. Yes, this side of my family were slave-owners, and God only knows what suffering these slaves experienced at the hands of my ancestors.

And I am not alone. America was built on the suffering and death of native peoples, slaves, and white and non-white minorities who came here to seek a better way of life. Many of us are forever stained with the blood of others—whatever the intervening generations.

But we can do something about it, starting with confessing the truth.

Here in Yellowstone, we can give Mount Doane and Hayden Valley different names that reflect the role of native people and wildlife in this unique ecosystem. This small step could be the beginning of new relationships with native peoples, based on respect rather than exploitation.

Last weekend, Tribal representatives made an unambiguous offer to help in a much-needed healing process.  Will the Park Service help too? 

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.