Origin Stories: Native Lore Behind America’s Iconic Climbing Areas

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Clockwise from upper left: Payahuunadü (Bishop) showing the Buttermilk Boulders; Ahwahnee (Yosemite) showing Half Dome; Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) showing Stawamus Chief; a view into Mukuntoweap (Zion); the quartzite ridge of the Shawangunks; Indian Creek; Mato Tipila (Devils Tower).

Clockwise from upper left: Payahuunadü (Bishop) showing the Buttermilk Boulders; Ahwahnee (Yosemite) showing Half Dome; Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) showing Stawamus Chief; a view into Mukuntoweap (Zion); the quartzite ridge of the Shawangunks; Indian Creek; Mato Tipila (Devils Tower).

For millennia, indigenous tribes have lived on the lands where North American climbers gather. The tribes have their own names for these sacred places, each with a unique story that guides their relationship to the land. In indigenous communities, it is not the people who name places, but the lands themselves who give the people their names.

Today, however, many of the original names for iconic climbing areas have been replaced. European settlers and explorers, who came to North America beginning in the 1600s, rewrote these sites’ histories, not only displacing the original inhabitants but also renaming the lands. Take the Virginia-born rancher Samuel Bishop, who only stayed in Payahuunadü for 18 months in the 1860s before lending his name to the Eastern Sierra region. Even the continent’s highest peak,
Denali—from the Koyukon Deenaalee, meaning “high one”—was, for nearly a hundred years, named after President William McKinley.

“When you come here to recreate and let the lands bring out the best in you, you should know the history of this land, and that [this] history predates colonialism,” says Jolie Varela, of the Nüümü and Yokut Nations, and the founder of Indigenous Women Hike. Understanding these sites’ full—and not just colonial and post-colonial—histories can help climbers become more respectful stewards, just as it is helpful to understand the type of rock we’re climbing on.

“Educating ourselves as climbers about the lands we climb on allows us to reflect upon local governance systems preceding colonial arrival and dominance,” says Erynne Gilpin, a Saulteaux-Cree Métis climber, indigenous scholar, and the founder of Indigenous Womxn Climb. “It re-centers local land-based knowledge systems in the ways we think about place, and allows for us to correct relationships to indigenous communities and the lands they come from.”

Fortunately, indigenous peoples have oral histories and records to help correct the record. Cultural centers like the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop, California, apps like Native Lands, and organizations like the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission can provide visitors with more info about these lands’ heritages. For this article, the names and stories were shared through personal relationships and gathered from tribal and governmental websites.

Payahuunadü (Bishop)

For thousands of years, the Paiute people, who call themselves Nüümü, have lived in Payahuunadü: “land where water flows.” Payahuunadü sits next to the Pamidu Toiyabe, the West Mountains, which Spanish explorers formally renamed the Sierra Nevadas in the 1700s. The Paiute use the large boulders Ja’a Tubi, which climbers know as the Grandma and Grandpa Peabody boulders, as a place for wedding ceremonies, though none have occurred there in recent times.

“There’s a reason for that,” says Varela—it’s been taken over by climbers. “We go to these places as indigenous people and sometimes don’t even feel welcome because there are so many climbers there, and a lot of the time we don’t look the part. Coming into a space like that can be pretty intimidating even though that is our homeland.”

In the Volcanic Tablelands northwest of Bishop, home to the Happy and Sad boulders, the Paiute created mata, shallow dishes carved into the rock for grinding up plants—such as pine nuts—for food and medicine. The Paiute also carved petroglyphs into the volcanic tuff, creating lines, concentric circles, and ornate scenes at Sky Rock and other sites. One rock depicts the 13 moons of a lunar calendar. Petroglyphs like these provide a connection to indigenous peoples’ ancestral roots, particularly in areas from which they’ve been violently evicted.

Ahwahnee (Yosemite)

Long before Warren Harding’s ascent of El Capitan, Tu-Tok-A-Nu’-La, an inchworm, climbed Yosemite’s centerpiece 3,000-foot cliff. According to a Miwok legend, the worm scaled the sheer cliff in an attempt to rescue two boys—or a family of bears by some accounts—stuck at the top. The Miwok, who have lived in Yosemite Valley for over 4,000 years, named the granite formation in honor of the worm.

Yosemite Valley was originally known to its inhabitants as Ahwahnee—“gaping, mouth-like place,” according to Scott Beeler, in the 1995 Journal of the American Name Society. The Miwok and Paiute people who lived here called themselves the Ahwahnechee. When Lafayette Burnell, a physician and explorer, renamed the valley in 1851, he christened it after the tribe then living there, which he believed to be the Yosemite. However, outside Miwok bands called those who lived in the Valley Yohhe’meti or Yos.s.e‘meti, which the Miwok translated as “those who kill.” By Burnell’s account, he later realized his translator may have confused Yos.s.e‘meti with the Miwok üzümati, meaning “grizzly bear.” At the same time, El Capitan gained its new name as a Spanish translation of what was thought to be the rock’s Miwok name—the chief.

In the 1800s, Gold Rush miners increased pressure on indigenous lands and resources in the area. The Miwok, who numbered 10,000, were killed and evicted from Yosemite Valley during the Mariposa War, leaving less than 1,000 Sierra Miwok according to a 1910 census.

Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish)

Siyám Smánit (renamed Stawamus Chief), the mountain overlooking the Squamish Valley in British Columbia, contains some of the Pacific Northwest’s best climbing. The area’s original inhabitants, the Skwxwú7mesh, who continue to live in the area today, recount stories of a young warrior, Xwechtáal, who was once given an assignment—kill a massive two-headed serpent named Sínulhka. He pursued the serpent up Siyám Smánit, leaving a striking black streak, now known to climbers as the Black Dike, which rises from the waters of the Howe Sound. Ultimately, it took four years for the warrior to kill the snake. Today, climbers following in Xwechtáal’s footsteps can climb the Black Dike, a 5.13b sport route that ascends Siyám Smánit.

A mile from Siyám Smánit sits a smaller, 600-foot formation that at one point was derogatorially named the Squaw. However, in 2009, the Skwxwú7mesh First Nation reinstated its traditional name, Slhanay, which it’s commonly called today. From Siyám Smánit, the view of Nch’Kay dominates the horizon approximately 11 miles to the northeast. The 8,786-foot peak, renamed Mount Garibaldi after a man who had never visited the area, is where the Skwxwú7mesh Nation anchored their canoes to survive a great flood.

Mato Tipila (Devils Tower)

A group of Lakota girls were once out picking flowers. Suddenly, a great bear spotted them and chased the girls, who fled to a nearby pile of rocks. Taking notice, the Great Spirit raised up the rocks under the girls’ feet. The bear tried to climb the vertical rock, scraping his claws up and down the formation, but he only left scars in the stone.

So goes the Lakota story of Mato Tipila, or Bear’s Lodge, as the Lakota originally called Devils Tower. The five Northern Plains tribes—Lakota, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Arapahoe, and Crow—and Kiowa have lived in the region for 10,000 years and consider Bear’s Lodge to be one of their most sacred sites. According to the Lakota, wisdom was born at Mato Tipila, and local indigenous tribes have long visited it to pray. The Kiowa say the Great Spirit later immortalized the girls in the stars, creating the constellation commonly known as the Pleiades.

The 867-foot phonolite formation provides the venue for the Sun Dance, a ceremony practiced by tribes to celebrate renewal and harmony with the earth in which the dancer suffers through fasting and self-inflicted pain, in part to take penance for the suffering of nature. The formation remains a sacred place, and modern Sun Dances have taken place at Mato Tipila since 1983. Many believe that climbers desecrate the formation when they scale it. Since 1995, the National Park Service has asked climbers to refrain from scaling Mato Tipila in June.

“Although the Tower is a spiritual site year-round for many native people, June is especially important, as it’s the month of the summer solstice and ceremonies surrounding that date,” says Annie Gilliland, acting chief of interpretation at Devils Tower National Monument. “The local tribes, park officials, and climbing organizations who helped plan for this felt that by making the closure voluntary, they were offering people the chance to show respect for native beliefs and cultures.”

Mukuntoweap (Zion National Park)

The lands that are now Zion National Park were originally those of the Southern Paiute, before Mormon pioneers displaced them. The Paiute people have their own names for different canyons in the area, notes Dorena Martineau, cultural resources director for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. Zion Canyon, cut by Pawdoos’, the Virgin River, was originally called Ai Oogoon or Oo Koon’uv, meaning “quiver,” which was probably derived from the narrowness of the canyon. The Southern Paiute also call it Mukuntoweap, which means “straight canyon.”

Mukuntoweap was the first name chosen for the national monument. A few years prior to it becoming a national park in 1919, Horace Albright, an interim park director, renamed it Zion since “‘Mukuntuweap’ was too difficult to pronounce and really tough to spell,” as he wrote in Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years.

Most of the park’s major walls and features were similarly renamed with Mormon-inspired terms, with the exception of the Temple of Sinawava, which railroad businessman Douglas White named after the Paiute’s coyote god, Soonungwuv. In the northwest corner of the park, Kolob Canyon, home to the striking Namaste Wall, takes its name from the Paiute word for neck—koduv’.

Indian Creek

Now a part of the larger monument of Bears Ears, Utah’s Indian Creek and the surrounding areas have long been an important place in indigenous cultures, notes Alastair Bitsóí, communications director with the Utah Diné Bikéyah. “The monument is important to us as indigenous peoples because it’s where all of our cultural values, our ceremonies, our foods, our knowledge, our science of the world are connected to,” says Bitsóí. “The knowledge is part of who we are.”

Over the past thousand years, the Hopi, Dine, Ute, Zuni, and Puebloan peoples have all called this land home. The Anasazi and Fremont peoples resided there a millennium before them, and the first signs of human presence date back 10,000 years. Today, you can still see structures and petroglyphs in Indian Creek, notably at Newspaper Rock (aka Tse’ Hone: “a rock that tells a story”). Spread across 200 square feet, clustered drawings depict humans, animals, and abstract forms.
Modern climbers were not the first to access the cliffs—throughout the region, archaeologists have found remnants of yucca plants processed into cordage. These ropes provided indigenous peoples access to cliff-side nooks to store foods in times of raids. In 2004, researchers replicating the ropes found they could hold a static load of over 450 pounds.

“Climbers and people who recreate in different ways—I think that is a beautiful way to connect with the land. If [climbers] start with a land acknowledgment, it will help them to connect in a way that they never have or never thought of—that this land is native land,” says Bitsóí. “There is something beyond just the chalk and the walls.”

Shawangunks

Along the ridge of foothills bordering the Catskill Mountains in New York are a series of famed quartz conglomerate cliffs. Known as the Shawangunks, this area originally belonged to the northern Lenape and Munsee until the 1800s, when European colonists displaced them to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario where many remain today. In the Lenape language, schawangunk translates to “in the smoky air.” Lenape linguist Raymond Whritenour believes the word could have been an original name for a Munsee village, but could also stem from the burning of a Munsee fort in 1663. The nearby Catskills were originally named the “Hidden Mountains” by the Lenape, so called because of the heavy humidity and weather conditions created by the ridgeline. Unfortunately, due to the eviction of the Lenape, there is little info about their original connection to the land.