A controversy over the names of two landmarks in Yellowstone National Park highlight a forgotten genocide in the U.S. and how historical awareness, conflicting narratives and misinformation help muddy the waters.
Let’s start with Mount Doane.
On a cold January day more than a century ago, U.S. troops massacred nearly 200 Piikani people on a Montana river bank. A few were young men:
“The rest were women, children and old folks,” Chief Stanley Charles Grier of the Piikani Nation in Alberta, Canada said. “It’s hard to imagine.”
The people killed were Grier’s ancestors.
Accounts of the massacre are brutal. Soldiers killed a mother breastfeeding her baby. They shot sick people hiding under blankets.
“Survivors were basically executed by axes,” Grier said. “That’s pretty barbaric.”
The man who helped perpetrate this massacre was U.S. Army Lieutenant Gustavus Doane. He was 29 years old then. In photos, he’s wearing a soldier’s uniform with combed black hair and a massive waxed mustache.
Doane later went on to explore parts of Yellowstone. His compatriots named Mount Doane after him.
The name stuck.
But for Grier, Mount Doane is a celebration of violence perpetrated against his people.
“Doane led that attack and fully implemented the massacre,” Grier said. “As a result, we feel that’s an atrocity to humanity and it’s essentially a war crime.”
So last September, Grier joined tribal leaders from across North America at the gates of Yellowstone National Park.
A few rode horses and some leaders wore cowboy hats. They were there asking the National Park Service to change Mount Doane’s name to First Peoples Mountain.
They also want to rename the iconic Hayden Valley.
The person it’s named after was one of the first surveyors of Yellowstone, Ferdinand Hayden. While he wasn’t involved in the Piikani massacre, the tribes accuse him of calling for the extermination of American Indians.
They point to Hayden’s written works, including this statement made about Native Americans in his 1871 Geological Survey:
“Unless they are localized and made to enter upon agricultural and pastoral pursuits they must ultimately be exterminated.”
But as the Mountain West News Bureau combed through the 150-year-old document, it turns out Hayden didn’t write those words. They were actually written by one of Hayden’s colleagues, Cyrus Thomas.
Hayden did compile the full report, however, and gave Thomas’ words his blessing when he presented it to the U.S. government.
“He basically incited this hatred towards indigenous peoples at that time in his policies and in his written statements,” Grier said.
Earlier this year, Park County commissioners in Wyoming voted against changing Mount Doane and Hayden Valley. They said their constituents like the those names. They’re used to them.
“This has nothing to do with the Native Americans,” said Jake Fulkerson, one of commissioners. “There was one article we saw that said commissioners against the Indians or something and that’s garbage.”
In regards to Hayden, he said, the issue is overblown. Who doesn’t have a skeleton in their closet?
“I mean, if you go around digging up dirt on people and changing names everywhere, I mean, once this horse leaves the barn, where does it end?” he asked.
But Fulkerson and the other Park County commissioners don’t make the ultimate decision. They can only make a recommendation to a federal body that will, the U.S. Board On Geographic Names.
“The board places a great deal of emphasis on local use or acceptance of a name or a name change,” said executive secretary Lou Yost.
The board’s researchers also compile historical documents and corroborate accusations. In this case, they found mountains of evidence against Gus Doane.
In one letter, Doane talks about watching a stream of Piikani blood flow down a frozen river. In short, the investigation showed he’s every bit as bad as the tribes suggest.
But racist accusations against Ferdinand Hayden are not so clear. As in his geological survey, other racist remarks attributed to him were actually written by different authors in reports Hayden helped edit.
This research, along with local recommendations, will be given to the board so they can make a final decision.
Before that happens, however, they still need a recommendation from the National Park Service.
When I asked outgoing Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk about it a month ago, he said Yellowstone’s prominence amongst national parks makes any decision a big deal:
“I think it’s a decision that has to be made in a larger context than just Yellowstone,” said Wenk.
Once the National Park Service finally pitches in, The U.S. Board on Geographic Names could decide on whether to rename one or both of the landmarks as early as this fall.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
Frederick Hayden, the first surveyor of Yellowstone National Park, has been widely accused of advocating for the extermination of American Indians. Particularly, he is said to have written the following in the second annual Preliminary Report of the United States Geological Survey in 1871:
“The present Indian policy, which doubtless looks forward to the localizing and settlement of these roving tribes, is intimately connected with the agricultural development of the West. Unless they are localized and made to enter upon agricultural and pastoral pursuits they must ultimately be exterminated. There is no middle ground between these extremes—one or the other must be the final result.”
This quote has been referenced in the tribes’ letter to the U.S. Board On Geographic Names, by historians, and in a book commissioned by the National Park Service. Those references made their way into media coverage including HuffPost, the Billings Gazette, the Guardian, the U.K.’s Daily Mail, and our own reporting.
It’s easy, at first glance, to believe Hayden wrote these words. He presented the report to the Interior Secretary and his name is on the front cover.
But upon closer inspection, the report is an anthology written by Hayden and other members of his exploration party. The excerpt in question is from a larger section on agriculture written by Cyrus Thomas.
Hayden did, however, draw special attention to Thomas’s report calling it of “great practical interest to the country.”
The U.S. Board On Geographic Names also recognized the attribution error. A co-author of the book commissioned by the National Park Service, American Indians In Yellowstone National Park, told me the mistake may have been his.
UCLA professor Peter Nabokov said he could’ve picked up the wrongly attributed quote from another academic researcher. The error wasn’t caught by copy editors or the Park Service’s archivist.
It was later used by the tribes’ in their name change proposal to the U.S. Board On Geographic Names.
- Nate Hegyi, reporter, Mountain West News Bureau