The Devil, the Indigenous God and the Colonizer in American Place Names
How English linguistic colonialism stains the legacy of sacred native spaces
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…