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Should Park Landmarks Honor People of Infamy?
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December 30, 2020
Should Park Landmarks Honor People of Infamy?
Gustavus Doane, who participated in Marias Massacre of more than 200 Blackfeet, has summits named after him in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks
Jen Burrit on the summit of Ranger Peak in Grand Teton National Park. On the skyline above head stands Peak 11,360, also known as Mount Doane. Photo courtesy Todd Burritt
EDITOR'S NOTE: In this so-called era of "cancel culture," Livingston, Montana writer Todd Burritt embarks on a quest to make sense of efforts to rename two mountain summits in Yellowstone and Grand Teton that honor a person associated with one of the bloodiest massacres of indigenous people in US history.
By Todd Burritt
Over three years have passed since the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association filed petitions to change two place names in Yellowstone National Park. Changing official names is always a slow process, with built-in timetables for soliciting input, evaluating public comments, etc., but this determination in particular feels a long time coming. Three years is an eon these days—so much feels up in the air. In the hope that this solemn interim can also serve as an opportunity for discussing history and landscape, I will share a few thoughts on one of those proposed changes.
Does A War Criminal Deserve To Have His Name On A Mountain?
If you ever take the long way around Yellowstone Lake—canoeing east and north, with the prevailing wind at your back—one mountain in particular will be your guide. At 10,656 feet, it doesn’t rank among Yellowstone’s highest, but its conical shape, advanced position from the hydrological crest, and satellite twin make it distinct. And when the light flattens the Absaroka horizon at dawn, or wildfire smoke cottons the horizon, this reference point only becomes more pronounced. If you don’t happen to be on the lake, the mountain is obscure.
The shortest approach is about six miles by foot, entirely off-trail, in the direction of the most remote spot in the 48 states. The maps call this place Mount Doane, but there’s considerable momentum right now to change its name to First Peoples Mountain.
Gustavus Cheyney Doane was a US Army officer who died in 1892. From his station at Fort Ellis, Montana (located on the edge of present-day Bozeman), he took a central role in the early Euro-American exploration of the Yellowstone Plateau. His military career also put him in combat roles during the government’s infamous "Indian Wars"—most notably in the Marias Massacre, one of the most appalling slaughters known on American soil.
Not only did Doane lead the murderous charge, more or less, he boasted about it in his later life. Leaders from sixteen Indigenous Nations have petitioned the National Park Service, historians have weighed in, and the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names voted six to two—all in favor of removing Doane’s name from the mountain.
And yet, despite widespread and vocal support in the press, it is unclear if the name change is getting traction where it needs to. From the coverage I’ve seen of this subject, not many people are defending Doane right now—claiming that his Blackfoot campaign did not culminate in massacre, or that he was anything less than a war criminal. His words are perfectly incriminating. For those who support removing his name, the slowness of the process, and near-silence on the part of the defense, makes the case all the more frustrating.
The dissonance, I believe, arises from the unique position place names occupy in our culture. Place names are symbolic. They invite analogies to monuments, or history books, but at the end of the day, they belong to a system rife with inconsistencies. Since evidence can be buttressed for almost any imaginable position on the issue, it is only natural that there would be fundamental disagreements about what appellations should offer. People argue about different things. Their points fly right past each other, never touching.
Gustavus Doane, 2nd Lieutenant in the Second Cavalry, fourth in from left (standing) at Fort Ellis outside Bozeman in 1870. Earlier that same year, in January, Doane was an officer who was instrumental in carrying out the Marias Massacre that killed more than 200 Piegan Blackfeet. Photo taken by William Henry Jackson, the photographer who accompanied painter Thomas Moran to Yellowstone and whose imagery, together, helped persuade Congress to create Yellowstone as the world's first national park.
So, what’s in a place name? It’s a trick question, of course. But on a practical level, we can begin with the US Board of Geographic Names (BGN), which strives to hold language to its most basic function: linking words with meanings. When they succeed, people using the same names are actually talking about the same geographic features.
In deciding which name goes where, the Board almost always favors precedence. Changing names is difficult. It’s not changing words on paper: it’s getting everybody who knows that place to refer to it differently. Since people will adopt new names on different timescales (out of force of habit, different map editions, obstinacy, etc.), some amount of confusion will inevitably result, precisely the problem that the Board was created to address.
Chances are this confusion will be minor, however, and if it means getting rid of a problematic name, that’s a small price to pay. Which transforms our question: what is a problematic name? “Controversial” is the word that the Board uses, and for a long time, it has applied the word in a minimal way. One policy guide offers two examples of names that should be changed—both racial slurs, for which non-derogatory words are directly substituted.
The word “Doane” is far from a racial slur. It is a given name, shared by thousands of people today, yet largely unknown. The problem isn’t the word but the weight that we, as a society, choose to give it. Gustavus Doane was guilty of some damnable things. Having a mountain named after him is one way that people could get introduced to his bloody but important story. Could increased awareness alone justify having his name on the landscape? Conversely, is there more to be gained by writing over his legacy?
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The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that place names are capable of doing more than conferring honor. No policy states that’s what names ought to do, and there are plenty of examples of names that don’t. Most people must acknowledge this possibility on an intuitive level. For example, the cherished Yellowstone landscape has at least nine places named for the devil, a couple for hell, none for God or heaven, yet few go on to conclude it was explored by Satanists.
Froze-to-Death Plateau, Mosquito Lake, Bad Route Road, Wounded Man Creek—these are other types of associations that no one is celebrating. The names stick because they are historical, cautionary, distinct. They carry information. At the same time, many places in America have intentionally been named for tragic events. We name massacre sites for massacres with the understanding that obscuring an atrocity is, to some degree, perpetuating the tragedy.
A function of names beyond honoring, then, is raising awareness. Arguably, it is a more valuable function, because it stands to benefit not just the namesake, but everyone who’s willing to learn.
In an ideal world, the historically relevant would be honorable as well. In this world, more often as not, power and integrity appear to have an inverse relationship. Rather than try for a multi-variable approach to name suitability, the BGN went with just one. As Jack Studley, one of two members of the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names that voted against renaming Mount Doane, explained, “the purpose of the Board is not to correct injustice; features are named for individuals that had an impact on the area.”
As Jack Studley, one of two members of the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names that voted against renaming Mount Doane, explained, “the purpose of the Board is not to correct injustice; features are named for individuals that had an impact on the area.”
According to the Board of Geographic Names, “historical significance” is one of the primary criteria for suitability of a name. One argument you might read, in support of change, is that Doane’s name ended up on Peak 10,656 by mistake: that it’s not only offensive but meaningless. This misconception is an illuminating one, based on a partial reading of the history.
In 1870, Nathaniel Langford and Gustavus Doane climbed what is now known as Colter Peak, about nine miles south of what is now Mount Doane. Immediately afterwards, General Washburn proposed naming Colter Peak for Langford, to which Langford consented under the condition they name a taller, neighboring mountain for Doane—now known as Mount Schurz.
These two names were placed on a provisional map but subsequent editions accidentally shuffled them elsewhere. (In that case, Langford’s name ended up on two points of prominence, Doane disappeared.) In 1871, back in the area with the government surveyor Ferdinand Hayden, Doane climbed Peak 10,656 to collect samples and take observations. Hayden named the peak for him shortly afterward.
Since Doane’s 1870 expedition is much better known than the one in 1871, it is often assumed that Doane had claim to only one mountain on the east side of Yellowstone Lake. The complicated truth brings a fact to the forefront: Doane’s historical presence in Yellowstone is unavoidable. He returned again and again—rarely on assignment, more often by pleading to his superiors, or appealing outside the chain of command, sometimes making enemies for it. If that meant an ill-conceived, nearly disastrous, and essentially useless attempt to cross Yellowstone Park and boat down the Snake River in the middle of winter, so be it. He could be brash and ego-driven, awe-struck or perceptive. Doane wasn’t rare in recognizing the power and uniqueness of Yellowstone, but to an extreme degree, he was possessed by the fever to experience it for himself.
Doane’s history in this area does not need a champion. It is not more important or interesting than all the history that came before him; it is less. For better or worse, however, his journals from the Yellowstone Plateau are some of the best that we have. There are older accounts, and there are better accounts, but there are no older, better accounts.
Some of what Doane wrote is fallible. Yet he was a gifted writer, with an unusually well rounded education for his time, and also uncommonly perceptive. When he ventured a wild theory based on his observations—say, that the entirety of Yellowstone was the crater of a huge volcano, or that Yellowstone Lake was tipping, or that Hayden Valley was once a lake bed—he was often on the right track. He didn’t just see Yellowstone as an arena for adventure but as an educational resource capable of benefiting all of humanity, “the greatest laboratory that nature furnishes on the surface of the globe.”
By the standards of historical relevance, Mount Doane is one of the last names we should remove from the Absaroka skyline. If you appreciate names as opportunities to dig into the history of a place, it would be crazy to erase Doane—he whose years were so entangled with the geography of the park—and allow, say, neighboring Atkins Peak to remain. John Atkins was a Tennessee congressman, a Confederate veteran, who never set foot in Wyoming.
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Personally, I don’t hold official place names sacred. The conventions of naming in this country have made it impossible for me to do so. Riffing on them is one of my most predictable trailside banters: their inadequacy, their redundancy, their inappropriateness. In general, they are no more than statements on the time at which they were named. The hasty, competitive parceling of the West. Messy stuff:clerical errors, cheap acts of patronage, vain attempts at personal mythologizing, misidentifications.
In the area where I live, Birch Creek is named for aspen, Cedar Creek for juniper, Cinnabar Mountain for iron oxide. Blacktail Deer Plateau for mule deer. Ibex Creek, I don’t even know. As others have pointed out, all three forks of the great Missouri are named for people who never saw them.
Naming mountains for people is terribly old-fashioned. At the heart of it I see an outmoded belief that some people are more than people. It’s the “great man theory” of history, in which society consists only of leaders—leaders who fit a very specific demographic—and those who follow. There also seems to be an anthropocentric assumption at work suggesting that the stature of the very earth is a manifestation of our values, rather than vice versa. Arguably, the vast majority of places should be renamed, including all of those with human namesakes.
If an encounter with a new place begins when I learn to look beyond the name, and whatever other preconceptions I bring to it, it finishes when a rich, sensory concept grows into that stead. Ideally, names have little sway over how I ultimately conceive of place. But I don’t ignore names. Not only is it impossible, it’s undesirable. Names always tell a story, just never the story—or at best, very little of it. I regard them about the same way I would treat an unreliable, unattributed historical document: of interest, but not to be accepted at face value.
For that reason, historical significance is my preferred criterion for naming mountains. It’s a way in. To regard an association as significant has nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” we think it is. It’s a way of understanding where we are today, for better or worse.
I can offer up my own experience as an example. After climbing two different mountains named for Gustavus Doane, I still didn’t know much about him, but I was curious. Later, when I encountered a book that excerpted his journals at length, I bought it and read it. That inspired me to seek out another book about Doane, a biography. Both books were worthwhile reads—not because I liked the guy, but because his story was illuminating. It took me all over the place, in a singular cross section of the geography I’m most interested in. He was a would-be (or wannabe) John Wesley Powell, John Colter, George Armstrong Custer, David Livingstone, Adolphus Greely, and so many more, burning, burningwith his often-misguided ambition. Doane is an antihero, as so many of the great protagonists are, and if you are interested in Yellowstone, I argue that you should know his name.
"I can offer up my own experience as an example. After climbing two different mountains named for Gustavus Doane, I still didn’t know much about him, but I was curious. Later, when I encountered a book that excerpted his journals at length, I bought it and read it. That inspired me to seek out another book about Doane, a biography. Both books were worthwhile reads—not because I liked the guy, but because his story was illuminating."
Among place names, Mount Doane doesn’t belong in the same category as a Devil’s Inkstand or Donner Pass. The intention behind the name was not reprisal or precaution. Assuming the name was meant to honor him, might it not continue fulfilling that function, as long as it’s left in place?
For one thing, assuming the name was meant to honor him is just that: an assumption. What if the explanation is even simpler—Doane’s name served as a placeholder, in impartial recognition of his association with the topography? Ferdinand Hayden was a surveyor with a lot of naming to do. If he stuck Doane’s name to the mountain with any particular feeling in mind, he didn’t put it in the record. The two men had a competitive relationship. They appear in one another’s writings sparingly and with obvious tension, which partly helps explain why the story behind the name has been the subject of such confusion.
Doane’s own feelings on names seem mixed at best. At the start of the 1870 Yellowstone Expedition, Nathaniel Langford wrote, “We had agreed that we would not give to any object of interest which we might discover the name of any of our party nor any of our friends.” Initially, this rule prompted quite a bit of kidding among the party. When one man suggested the name Minaret Fall, another said he must have a belle named Minnie Rhett, and suggested Tower Fall instead. Tower Fall it became—and soon thereafter, the namer was accused of being infatuated with some Miss Tower.
The very next day, the standard went out the window, when the highpoint of Yellowstone’s largest interior range was tagged Mount Washburn. But when Langford suggested Doane’s name for what is now Mount Schurz, Doane seems to have been either oblivious or indifferent. As Orrin and Lorraine Bonney write, “it seems likely that had Doane known about the Washburn map [which attached his name to today’s Mount Schurz] he would have called the duplication of names to Hayden’s attention” in 1871.
In 1880, Doane participated in a failed Arctic expedition. He later wrote, “We did little, but left a great many things undone requiring some moral courage to refrain from doing. We did not change the names of all the localities visited as is customary… We did not hunt up nameless islands and promontories to tag them with the surnames of plethoric merchants and mildly enthusiastic females who had given us plugged tobacco and buttonhole bouquets. (…) We raised no flags, converted no natives, killed none.” He was jaded on the exploratory impulse. Perhaps he was also becoming wise to his own ways.
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In the American West, there are a couple timely precedents for changing the name of Peak 10,656, In both cases, the names of military officers were replaced with names that recognize Indigenous history.
In 2016, Harney Peak, the highest mountain east of the Rockies, was renamed Black Elk Peak. And in 2019, Jeff Davis Peak, in Nevada, was renamed Doso Doyabi. William Harney was an Army lieutenant who had a leading role in a massacre of Lakota people. Jefferson Davis, of course, was the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America. It is not hard to imagine Doane joining this cohort. Personally, however, I find the comparisons lacking. Not because Doane was morally superior, but because Mount Doane tells a story that helps us understand what actually happened there.
As I see it, there are three differences, actually. For one, Doane had a direct, physical connection to the mountain that was named for him. Harney and Davis did not.
Second, both Harney and Jeff Davis Peaks were intended to memorialize the very qualities of the men that we find most objectionable. Harney’s only association with the area was his persecution of the Lakota. The Battle of Ash Hollow—more accurately known as the Harney Massacre—was not far away. Jefferson Davis had zero connection to Nevada’s Snake Range. His name ended up there as a national symbol of white supremacy, and an interpretation of freedom in which the winner takes all. Doane, by contrast, found his way to Peak 10,656 for reasons that had no direct connection to the Marias Massacre. He was there to evaluate the natural attributes of what is now Yellowstone National Park, a job that he performed notably well.
Finally, the names Black Elk and Doso Doyabi had greater site-specific relevance than the names they replaced: Black Elk was (and is) a Lakota hero. Doso Doyabi is a traditional Shoshone name for that mountain. The rationality behind First Peoples Mountain is to memorialize the people killed in the Marias Massacre, and by extension, honor Indigenous people in general. It’s a good name, but it provides little insight into Peak 10,656’. What insight it does offer, in the first sense of the name, is by way of Gustavus Doane. In the second sense, the name is general to the point of being generic. That is, the name would be equally suited to tens of thousands of other mountains.
In 2016, Harney Peak, the highest mountain east of the Rockies, in the Black Hills, was renamed Black Elk Peak. And in 2019, Jeff Davis Peak, in Nevada, was renamed Doso Doyabi. William Harney was an Army lieutenant who had a leading role in a massacre of Lakota people. Jefferson Davis, of course, was the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America.
The story of the Marias Massacre desperately needs to be told, confronted, reckoned with. But I’m at a loss to explain why a summit in the Wyoming Absarokas—in a different state, in a different ecosystem, almost four hundred miles away and with its own unique history—should be the vehicle for that story. All places have their own stories to tell, and Peak 10,656’ just so happens to have an unusually specific connection to the illuminating and fraught Euro-American exploration of Yellowstone, a story that directly informs the creation of the world’s first national park.
A caveat with the secondary meaning of the proposed name is not that it’s undeserved: it’s that First Peoples deserve so much more. Peak 10,656’ doesn’t rank among the hundred highest peaks in the mountain range to which it belongs. It possesses very little true prominence. It shares a skyline crowded with the names of 19th century men: Langford, Plenty Coups, Stevenson, Atkins, Humphreys, and so on. When you consider everything that the term First Peoples encompasses—thousands of years of history spread among countless and widely varying cultural groups—a place in that lineup is diminishing almost to the point of triviality. Peak 10,656’ is not reparations but pittance.
The vast Absaroka Range, by contrast, to which Mount Doane belongs, is named for just one of those First Nations, otherwise known as the Crow. Absaroka is an Indigenous word, it is a geologic province that defines an ancestral homeland, it is the synthesis of the two. A vivid concept. Most of the Absaroka Range is now incorporated into the Shoshone National Forest: another awe-inspiring and complex Tribal group, another rabbit hole worth all the time you can afford it. Nearby Plenty Coups Peak is even more specific, named for just one Crow chief. The life of Plenty Coups is as good a starting point as any for delving into the history of the area, especially that devastating period of transition from traditional Indigenous culture to the reservation system. (Plenty Coups is most often associated with the Crazy Mountains, where he fasted for visions.) Stone Cup Lake, north of Sylvan Pass, goes one step further: an archaeological discovery, a sophisticated cultural practice.
To be sure, First Nations have much more of a claim to Peak 10,656’ than Gustavus Doane does, and perhaps their descendents should name it anything they want to, free from commentary from people like myself. The BGN aims to honor “the government-to-government relationships that exist between Tribes and the Federal Government.” One of their missions is to “Be cognizant and respectful of the historical, cultural, and spiritual relationships that Tribes have with the American landscape.” I would like to think that means that, if Tribes have a compelling reason to change a name, the Board could choose to defer to that, even if the reason doesn’t mesh with other stated policies.
I find myself lamenting that we don’t know what Peak 10,656 was traditionally called in the dozen or more languages of tribes whose ancestral homelands include the park. Those names would be excellent replacements for Mount Doane. But if these words are known, they have not been made common knowledge. They have apparently been lost in a cultural genocide for which Gustavus Doane holds more blame than most. The irony is a bitter one, but it is instructive, too.
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It wouldn’t do to treat Doane’s blackened military record as an aberration. With regards to the Marias Massacre, Doane’s orders ultimately came from General Philip Sheridan. Sheridan is known for pioneering a scorched earth policy as a Civil War general, and being one possible source of the quote “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” (Sheridan has a major Yellowstone summit named after him.)
The massacre was put into motion when Sheridan ordered Colonel James Hardie to “strike (the Piikáni Blackfeet) hard.” These orders were transmitted to Major Eugene Baker, the commanding officer of what is otherwise known as the Baker’s Massacre. (Baker’s name is also recorded on the Yellowstone landscape.) Just before the attack was carried out, a scout told Baker they had the wrong camp—the camp of peaceable Heavy Runner—to which he replied, “That makes no difference, one band or another of them.” He then ordered the scout shot if he should spread the word.
Culpability doesn’t just run up the chain of command. It diffuses outward, past the point of abstraction, while accountability splinters. Everyone was just “doing their jobs”—until they weren’t. As in Bob Dylan’s song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” no difference exists between no one’s fault and everyone’s fault—in this case, everyone who supported western expansion, and relied on others to pave the way. We can make Doane a scapegoat only by obscuring the scale and pervasiveness of violence done under the American flag. The Marias Massacre is one of the greatest known atrocities of the Indian Wars but it is not an outlier.
George Black’s popular history of Yellowstone, Empire of Shadows, delves wide and deep into the dark side of Western settlement. As reviewer Hal Herring summarizes, “the history of Yellowstone is inextricable from the violence required to conquer the territory surrounding it.” Doane’s life embodies this important theme: the very title of the book is lifted from Doane’s description of Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.
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“We’re trying to get you(…) to confront ‘your history,’” writes one proponent of renaming, the Piikáni Chief Stan Grier. One of the trickiest things about this conversation is recognizing the value in challenging Doane’s legacy from the long-term outcome of removing Doane’s name. The challenge itself is a highly effective confrontation with history. But when the name is gone, what is left? In the long run, I suspect there is more to be gained by site-specific, complicated, even painful names, than from more general, or less offensive, ones.
In Poland, Holocaust denial is a crime. Holocaust discussion is not. There are Holocaust teaching curriculums and Holocaust museums. Isn’t it easier to confront something when it is upfront, uncomfortable, visible? This is a question that you could also imagine emerging with regard to Confederate monuments. But for all the similarities between the two, I see just as many false equivalents.
For whatever it’s worth, I not only support the removal of Confederate monuments, I feel strongly about it. At the risk of being redundant (see above, re: Jeff Davis Peak), the express purpose of a Confederate monument is glorification of the Confederate cause. They specifically romanticize an attempt to create a secessionist slave state, as well as a poisonous belief system that turned America against itself. They mock the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and the ongoing struggle for justice among racial minorities. Worst of all, the Confederate cause is not history alone. It is live ammunition that continues to shoot holes in our social fabric and cripple democratic principles.
The oppression of Indigenous people is not just history, either. Yet the difference between Mount Doane and a statue of Robert E. Lee goes beyond personal politics. (While growing up in California, Doane was an outspoken abolitionist, and joined a tiny West Coast faction that volunteered for the Union army.) It’s that Mount Doane was not a reference to the Indian Wars. Unless we call all military presence in the 19th century American West an Indian War—and perhaps we should. Doane illustrates a deeply troublesome link between history that most people today consider “good” and what they consider “bad.” The interaction between these two dynamics, which many of us tend to separate in our minds, is largely what makes Doane’s story so valuable to us today.
There is another danger to removing Doane’s name. “Where does it stop,” President Trump demanded, with regard to taking down Confederate monuments—as though it’s a slippery slope from Robert E. Lee to Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty and then the Interstate Highway System. I’m not worried about where it will stop. I only know that it will stop too soon. If we initiate a fight to purify the names on the landscape, a fight that cannot be comprehensive and therefore cannot be won, we reinforce the belief that a standard of integrity exists when one does not. In that case, we won’t be able to say, “at least we tried.” We will have encouraged an assumption that is at the heart of the problem: people accepting names at face value, or as icons of virtue, and otherwise expecting others to do the homework for them.
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It’s clear that challenging Doane’s name works toward confronting history. The challenge is more than worthwhile. It’s less clear whether a successful challenge—and the scuttling of Doane’s name—would have the same function. One factor complicating the answer is that Mount Doane is located within a famous national park.
Yellowstone is one of the most interpreted environments in the world. It is a place people go to learn about the relationship between history and place. For a long time, interpretation had a narrow agenda: telling people what they wanted to hear, making the United States look good. Knowing what we know now, it is incumbent on interpreters to not shy away from history’s darker chapters—and for the most part, they don’t. A lot of the discourse is moving toward more ambiguous or traumatic subjects, to shine a light, to own up to them. To soften the edges of a traumatic history is to foster an illusion that all is well.
In 1870, General Henry Washburn named Peak 11,007 for Gustavus Doane, but the name was later replaced with Mount Schurz. Approximately nine miles northwest of Mount Schurz, across Beaverdam Creek, stand Peak 10,656—now known as Mount Doane—and its smaller twin, Mount Stevenson. Photo courtesy Todd Burritt
But places in Yellowstone don’t begin and end with a name. Whatever we end up calling Peak 10,656’, the story attached to the place has been strengthened by its challenges. Whatever name we choose, the story surrounding the mountain will still pivot on Gustavus Doane. It won’t be told in his honor. It will also include chapters beyond the monstrous actions that forever place him in the frigid cold, hours before dawn, in the camp of Heavy Runner on the Marias River—seven months before he ever set foot in Yellowstone National Park.
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At some point you have to consider things from the mountain’s point of view. Peak 10,656’ was originally nameless and undistinguished, incorporated within a tremendous stratovolcano. Millions of years of erosion defined the mountain as a distinct entity, and for millions of years, this entity remained nameless. Then, in the geologically recent past, it became a psychological presence in the lives of uncountable Indigenous people. It offered them landmark, livelihood, and insight, to a degree I can only fail to imagine. Then one day in 1871, a man in a military uniform stood on top, and almost immediately, the mountain’s identity became his identity.
If we leave Doane’s name on the landscape, it is clear that something still needs to change: the way we think about names. Most of us have heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. A place name is even less to go on than that.
We must dispense with all pretense of a virtuous standard for place names. Stop regarding our skylines as Mount Rushmores in the rough, as though they enshrine some pantheon of values. In a country named for Amerigo Vespucci, with a capital named for Christopher Columbus, on a landscape that has more problematic names than not, I believe we have no other choice. And we must think about what it would mean to change only some names, at the risk of sending the opposite message.
Maybe I am too cynical about our ability to work together, and that’s why I say some names. I don’t believe a full rewrite is possible. And even if it were, whatever we came up with would be a statement on our time. The timeless, “correct” determination would continue to elude us. Another way of looking at it: nothing that we impress upon the landscape will approach its dynamic resilience, its capacity to evolve.
One advantage to the old names on the land, as banal or superficial or fraught as their origins may be, is that their namesakes are dead. Whatever was intended in the naming, it’s no longer doing any direct favors. Names that were intended one way are now, by their very prominence, lightning rods for revisionism—much like the mountains to which they adhere. And in practice, in the field, when all you want is a way to communicate the contours of the land, even the strangest or punchiest names become mere sounds on your tongue. Names are puffs of air in the wind, and when a September snowstorm bears down on the Absaroka crest, the intractable physicality of the earth sends them all back.
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The process of changing a place name is a terrible ordeal. But in its arduous, headline-making way, it is also an invaluable opportunity for educating ourselves and others. I imagine that most of the people paying attention to this debate wouldn’t have noticed Peak 10,656’ any other way, nor would they have a reason to dislike the name Gustavus Doane.
One final thought. While the Board of Geographic Names is permissive of tarnished legacy names, it does caution against repetitive names. Why didn’t we serve a referendum on Gustavus Doane’s legacy by renaming Peak 11,360, aka Mount Doane, in Grand Teton National Park?
Perhaps we still can. Like Peak 10,656, it would offer a chance to educate and discuss, and if successful, create a miniature narrative, finishing on a note that many people, especially the historically oppressed, could take heart in. The crucial difference? Geography. Peak 11,360’ was named in recognition of an 1876 campsite that Doane and his men had at the foot of Waterfalls Canyon. That’s all the closer he got to it.
In 2006, members of the Blackfeet Confederacy gather for a round dance at the site of the 1870 Marias Massacre along the Marias River. Photo courtesy Harry Palmer, licensed via Creative Commons NonCommerical-NoDerivs 3.0. To see more Harry Palmer's work go to www.aportraitofcanada.ca