The Cheyenne vs. the white man’s theory of tornadoes

A spectacular NYTimes magazine story on Oklahoma's "weather god" of tornadoes, meteorologist and television forecaster Gary England, included this fascinating nugget from writer Sam Anderson:

 I kept remembering something Gary England told me in his office. One big regret, he said, is that although he grew up surrounded by Cheyenne people in Seiling, he never asked them about tornadoes. He didn’t know any of the tribes’ severe-weather folklore or survival strategies — the wisdom they must have built up over centuries on the Plains. Greg Carbin, at the National Weather Service, told me something similar. It’s a shame, he said, but not much native lore has survived. Both men had an attitude of sad resignation. Despite all of our Dopplers and Storm Trackers and Dominators, the feeling seemed to be, we have lost the old wisdom forever.

As I combed through the meteorological data about the tornadoes of May 31, this loss kept cycling through my mind. Eventually, in mid-July, after Oklahoma’s tornado season had given way to suffocating summer heat, I e-mailed the Cheyenne Nation and got in touch with a chief named Gordon Yellowman. Yellowman wouldn’t tell me everything he knows about surviving tornadoes. The rituals are sacred, he said, and have never been shared with outsiders. But he did tell me some things.

The Cheyenne language has several words for tornadoes and their related storms:hevovetaso (tornado), ma’xehevovetaso (big  whirlwind), ehohaatamano’e (threatening weather). For the Cheyenne, the tornado is not some kind of evil predatory force or a random assault from a blind and dumb atmospheric soup with no concern for human life. A tornado has a job, Yellowman told me, and that is to restore balance to the environment. The tornado speaks to the native people, in their respective tribal languages, in a voice that sounds like fire. Before it reaches the tribal land, the tornado tells the elders how big it’s going to be, not in the technical language of the EF scale but in colloquial terms: small, medium, big, huge. The tornado of May 31 was huge.

Yellowman is 55 and lives in El Reno. Late on the afternoon of May 31, as the EF5 was bearing down on his city, he and four other Cheyenne holy men stood in their homes and enacted the ancient rituals. They spoke with the tornado. They asked it to have pity and turn away.

This, Yellowman said, was when, against all meteorological expectation, the tornado turned south — baffling Gary England, breaking Emily Sutton’s windshield, tossing the Weather Channel car, mangling the Dominator. It was later determined that the El Reno tornado was 2.6 miles wide — the widest in recorded history.

Meterologists measure tornadoes by their destructive potential, from E1 to E5. Here's a spooky Nat'l Geographic video of a tornado chaser:




Note how thrilled researcher Tim Samaras is to see that storm. I get that, and personally would like to experience a hurricane. We speak of the "awesome" — what could be more awesome than a hurricane?

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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