At one time, more than 10 million Indigenous people lived in the pre-colonial United States. Today, more than two million Native Americans live across the U.S., mostly west of the Mississippi River. As European-Americans moved westward, they started giving rock formations and other places English names, such as Devils Tower and Chimney Rock. While it’s understandable that people would want to identify places in their language, it’s important for travelers to know the original names and why they matter.
As a Native American, I often find myself falling into the convenience of using English names, even though I know the traditional names. However, I’ve started to make a concerted effort to use the traditional names of the attractions I visit that have an Indigenous connection. Using the Native American names is an acknowledgment of their rich history and shows respect for America’s First People.
Here are a few popular attractions, along with their Native American names.
1. Mato Tipila
Devils Tower National Monument in eastern Wyoming is also known as Bear Lodge. The 867-foot-tall butte is considered a sacred place for about 20 tribes. Known by the Lakota (Sioux) as Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge), this is the name I use when referring to it. I’m Dakota, a relative of the Lakota, so I honor them with the name. The Lakota are believed to have had the strongest connection to Bear Lodge. Mato Tipila is a sacred site, having served as a winter camp dating back to the early 1800s and the location for religious sun dances. Mato Tipila was seen as a site of creation and renewal in the land of the Black Hills, according to the Lakota.
The attraction — which was named the first national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt — is also known as Tso-aa by the Kiowa, who believed it was a tree rock because it grew as fast as a tree. The Cheyenne referred to it as Bear Lodge and called it Na Kovehe.
Learning the traditional names for attractions helps keep Indigenous culture and history alive. Visitors learn to appreciate the history rather than just see Devils Tower as an attraction. And Native American history is American history.
In Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since Denali is often covered by clouds, it has special meaning for most people, but even more so for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. It has been known for centuries as Deenaalee by the Koyukon-speaking people of the north side of the mountain. About nine Native tribes honored the mountain with names. In Alaska, tribes are often identified by the traditional languages, with five Athabaskan languages spoken near the mountain.
In naming the park Mount McKinley National Park, the federal government went against the wishes of several prominent people who believed the Native name was the correct one to use. While it may have been known as Mount McKinley to most people in the lower 48, Alaskans continued to refer to it as Denali. During our visit there with friends, my family never considered calling it Mount McKinley. Again, we understood its history and honored the locals by using the Denali name.
As the National Park Service prepared to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2016, the Secretary of the Interior authorized the name change to Denali National Park and Preserve. This made thousands of Alaskans happy in having the traditional name recognized.
3. Paha Sapa
Considered the birthplace of the Lakota, the Black Hills have been a sacred region for centuries. The Paha Sapa (Black Hills) span western South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming, and southeastern Montana. When the Lakota signed the 1868 treaty at Fort Laramie, the U.S. agreed that the Black Hills would remain a part of the Sioux reservation.
However, in 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer led a group of miners to the Paha Sapa in search of gold, which violated the treaty. Once gold was found, more miners made their way to the Black Hills. Soon after, the U.S. Army was instructed to launch military strikes against Lakota tribes in the area. The situation came to a head in 1876, when Custer led troops to the Little Bighorn in Montana, where a united group of tribes defeated the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry.
However, the federal government took the Black Hills, and the Lakota were moved to reservations around South Dakota. Today, the Lakota continue to claim ownership of the Paha Sapa, which has been supported by federal courts. Instead of accepting money for the land, as the federal government has offered, the Lakota want the land back. You may know that Mount Rushmore National Memorial, with the busts of four American presidents, is located in the Black Hills. The attraction has been controversial since its inception, since it’s built on a mountain known as The Six Grandfathers.
4. Iyansha K’api
Pipestone National Monument
Iyansha K’api — which translates to “the place where one digs the red rock” — is considered a sacred spot in southwest Minnesota, where Dakota (Sioux) and other tribes would dig to find the perfect stone to make pipes. Mistakenly called peace pipes by non-Indians, the pipes serve a variety of purposes, but are always considered sacred. I must admit I was a little jealous when my eldest sister showed me a pipe that my eldest brother had made for her from the granite at Pipestone.
Pipestone National Monument in Pipestone, about an hour northeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, continues to set aside areas for Native Americans to dig for granite. While everyone is invited to enjoy a walk on the trails around the national land, only Native Americans are allowed to dig for granite for pipes.
As you walk the trails, you’ll see a couple of rock formations that resemble faces. It seems as though they are spirits from above, watching over the land. Pipestone is a small national monument, but one that packs a lot of history.
While in the town of Pipestone, I recommend stopping by Keepers Gift Shop and Gallery, where you can buy authentic Native American products. Outside stands the world’s largest Native American pipe. You’ll also want to spend time visiting the other downtown retail outlets.
Mount Saint Helens
The story of Mount Saint Helens and the surrounding volcanoes dates back centuries. The mountain was called Louwala-Clough or Loowit — Lady of Fire — by Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The British explorer George Vancouver called the mountain in southwest Washington Mount Saint Helens in honor of Alleyne Fitzherbert, who held the title of Baron Saint Helens and served as the British ambassador to Spain. The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center (a state park) and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument offer a look into the history of the volcano and its Native American story.
According to the legend, Loowit (Mount Saint Helens) was a beautiful young woman who gained the attention of two brothers — Wyeast and Klickitat. The two brothers fought over her, leveling villages and killing innocents. The Great Spirit grew tired of the love triangle and turned the three into volcanic mountains. Loowit became what non-Indians recognize as Mount Saint Helens. Wyeast was turned into Mount Hood, located in Oregon. Klickitat became Mount Adams in Washington. The three mountains are part of the northwestern chain of volcanoes along the Cascade Mountains range that runs from British Columbia, Canada, to Northern California.
The brothers were allowed to see Loowit in her natural beauty as a mountain. Wyeast (Mount Hood) proudly stands tall, while Klickitat bows his head because the beauty of Loowit covered in snow is too much for him.
Mount Saint Helens has erupted several times over the years. The last major eruption was in 1980, resulting in 57 deaths and millions of dollars in damage. Today, the national volcanic monument has healed nicely, with acres of forest regrowth led by birds dropping seeds over the years. You can hike to the volcano site. Otherwise, you can take in the views of the mountain and surrounding area from the comfort of walking trails near the visitor center. It’s recommended that visitors go to the visitor center before driving on to the national monument. You’ll learn a lot of information that will help you enjoy your visit to the national site.
Editor’s Note: Statistics in the first paragraph are based on History and 2010 census information.