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The prevalence of names associated with Hell or the Devil in the natural wonders of the American landscape can come as a shock.
For a country so rich in so many varieties of terrain, all containing striking scenes of natural beauty like its European colonizers had never seen before, it’s given nicknames like an unloved child’s bedroom. There’s a Devil’s Punchbowl, OR, a Devil’s Cauldron, NV, a Devil’s Bathtub, SD, a Devil’s Fork, SC, and even a Devil’s Hop Yard, CT. There’s a Hell’s Hundred Acres, at least two Hell’s Half Acres, and several Devil’s Kitchens and Devil’s Gates each. Most famed of all, of course, is Devils Tower, WY, having played a central role in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
There’s probably thousands of similarly named places across the country, some rough and barren and others perfectly pleasant-looking. But why do we see so comparatively few angelically-named places? Could there have even been an agenda behind this seemingly frivolous historical motif?
Well, yes, it’s America, of course there was.
We may explain it best with the most evident example; that of New England and the Puritans. These were some of early America’s more extreme Christian sects, and they took a hard stance on the identity of local Wampanoag religious figures and sacred locations as demonic in nature. Everywhere any kind of unique natural formation had a known association to a Wampanoag religious ritual or story, it was given a name related to the Devil to denote the presence of the presumably demonic native deities.
Now, that can’t be the whole story. Simple mistranslation played a role; Devils Tower came from Colonel Richard Irving’s 1875 mistranslation of the Lakota name “Mato Tipila”, meaning “Bear’s Tower”, as something more like “Bad God’s Tower”, which he equated with Satan.
The bear here doesn’t refer to an evil spirit, though; it just refers to a normal bear who plays the role of hungry hero-chasing villain in the tower’s Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho origin stories. But even this may have been an intentional mistranslation, and no correction of it by any natives was paid heed.
Those hellish names in the American West may also originate from the barren, jagged or remote nature of that terrain. The famous scenic rock formations of Badlands National Park, SD, were known to the native Lakota by the exact same name for their extreme heat, dryness, rockiness, and difficulty to cross. But this only accounts for a relative few of the many varied areas where such names are found.
Going back to Devils Tower, we find confirmation of an obvious suspicion; most of these names were probably the result of the demonization of native deities and suppression of native religious practices. Eastern Shoshone woman Diana Mitchell in a 1997 New York Times interview explained it so:
“To name it Devils Tower is a slap in the face because of what the whites used to call Indians back then: they were Devils, dirty Devils …
Who wants to pray at something called Devils Tower?”
The discouragement of native religion, and the drive to kill all native culture, was always the motive to rename. And this hidden legacy of colonial oppression can serve as a crucial reminder.
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