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October 9, 2023

A long-told myth about Yellowstone is that indigenous people were “afraid” of the area owing to the geysers and thermal activity. But archeological evidence and oral histories and even an early map throw cold water on this story.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806 never entered the Yellowstone area, although they were tantalizingly close—on the return journey from the Pacific Ocean, a group led by Captain William Clark passed through present-day Livingston and journeyed down the Yellowstone River from that point.  Nevertheless, in Clark’s journal of the expedition, in a section labeled “Notes of Information I believe Correct,” the following passage appears regarding the Yellowstone River:

At the head of this river the nativs give an account that there is frequently herd a loud noise, like Thunder, which makes the earth Tremble, they State that they seldom go there because their children Cannot sleep—and Conceive it possessed of spirits, who were averse that men Should be near them.

Shoshone Tukudika (Sheepeater) at Medicine Lodge Creek, Idaho, in 1871.
Shoshone Tukudika (Sheepeater) men, women, and children at Medicine Lodge Creek, Idaho, in 1871. This photo was taken by U.S. Geological Survey employee William Henry Jackson.  Courtesy of National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, YELL 8151.

This statement is one of the first mentions of the Yellowstone area by Euro-Americans, and also the first suggestion that indigenous people were somehow afraid of the region.  Curiously, the passage was not written at the time of the exploration, but some years later, and it is unclear where Clark obtained this information.

Regardless of from where and when the information arrived with Clark, it’s wrong.  Indigenous people have never been afraid of Yellowstone, and in fact lived in the area and used its resources for thousands of years.  The evidence for this long association with the Yellowstone region comes from written, oral, and archeological records.

The written record is in the form of a unique map drawn by indigenous people on a bison hide and given to Governor James Wilkinson of Louisiana Territory.  In late 1805, Wilkinson passed this map on to President Thomas Jefferson with a letter that stated: “This Rude Sketch without Scale or Compass…is not destitute of Interests, as it exposes the location of several important Objects, & may point the way to useful enquiry—among other things a little incredible, a Volcano is distinctly described on Yellow Stone River.”

The map was apparently, at some point, displayed in the entrance hall of Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, and later may have been transferred to the University of Virginia, where it was probably destroyed by fire in the late 1800s.

There are also oral traditions that describe the importance of Yellowstone to indigenous people, who had many names for the region.  To the Crow, it was the “land of the burning ground” or “land of vapors;” to the Blackfeet it was known as “many smoke;” to the Flatheads it was “smoke from the ground;” to the Kiowa it was called “the place of hot water.”

The creation story of the Kiowa people is centered in the Yellowstone area—specifically, Dragon’s Mouth, near Mud Volcano.  The Shoshone tribe—a band (the Tukudika, or Sheepeaters) of which include the only known year-round inhabitants of the region at the time of Euro-American contact—tell a story regarding the creation of Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone and Snake Rivers, and the waterfalls along those rivers.  Geysers feature prominently in stories of the Crow people, and a Crow man named Hunts-to-Die, who lived in the 1800s, explained that the tribe believed the geysers were associated with helpful spirits. 

Obsidian Cliff lava flow, Yellowstone
Photograph of Obsidian Cliff along Grand Loop Road between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs. Photograph by John Good, U.S. National Park Service, 1965.

And then there’s the archeological evidence.  Hundreds of campsites have been excavated near thermal areas, and Yellowstone Lake was clearly a center of activity for thousands of years.  Perhaps the most important resource in the park was Obsidian Cliff, which provided an exceptional source of high-quality obsidian that could be used for fashioning blades and projectile points.  Tools made of Obsidian Cliff material are common throughout the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains and have been found as far away as Columbus, Ohio, in mounds built 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell people.

The Tukudika even made direct use of the hot springs, soaking bighorn sheep horns to allow them to be shaped into bows.

Although the myth of indigenous fear of Yellowstone was certainly propagated by early leaders of Yellowstone National Park, probably to encourage tourism given the hostile encounters between the Army and indigenous tribes especially in the 1870s, the archeological, oral, and written evidence proves this to be completely false.  Indigenous people not only knew of the region but utilized its resources for thousands of years.  And according to the bison-hide map, they even understood Yellowstone’s volcanic nature—something that was not established geologically until the 1870s.  And it took the geological mapping of USGS and academic scientists in the 1950s–1970s to understand the recency of that volcanic activity!

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