Most people would be more than just a little bit nervous if they happened to be watching the news only to find a mile-wide tornado roaring toward their homes. Not so with tribal elder Gordon Yellowman and a small group of his Cheyenne-Arapaho elders.
How was it possible for Yellowman to remain calm as sirens blared, warnings were issued and many people rushed to shelters as the weather radar predicted the tornado would be both massive and deadly? Yellowman and his elders were confident they could huddle to perform an ancient ritual which would turn the tornado away.
“We spoke to it in our language,” Yellowman said.
After the ritual, details of which are hidden from outsiders to protect its potency, the tornado blasting toward the Native American tribe in Oklahoma took an unanticipated turn south and veered away. This move was not part of any of the computer modeling possibilities for the funnel cloud.
The El Reno tornado on May 31, 2013 was one of the widest recorded at 2.6 miles and killed eight motorists – four of them considered to be storm chasers. It hit mere days after a tornado caused 24 casualties in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
There is no scientific data to prove it, yet the rituals seem to work. Officials in tornado-prone Oklahoma say Native American lands have suffered relatively less damage from twisters (over the past 60 years) that have devastated tens of thousands of structures in other areas of the state.
That does not mean, however, that Native American lands have been immune to damage. In April, a tornado touched down on land of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, damaging about 30 homes and buildings. In May 2010 a few homes were damaged by a twister on land managed by Absentee Shawnee Tribal Housing Authority, according to Oklahoma’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Tornadoes are easy to spot, if one listens to the world around them,” Yellowman, also a sundance priest of his tribe, said. "Nature will tell you. The land talks to the Cheyenne, tells us that a tornado is coming.”
“The leaves of the trees whisper warnings,” he said, “flipping themselves over in supplication to the angry skies. The birds warn by quieting their songs. Livestock file to far ends of fenced-in fields to escape a storm they know is coming.”
That does not mean the Cheyenne-Arapaho people leave things to chance – they have built tornado shelters for protection. CATV-47, Oklahoma’s first native-owned television station located at their sprawling complex near the Lucky Star Casino in Concho, airs weather warnings.
Communicating with the tornado also includes the tornado talking to the elders.
“He tells us how many lives he will take and how destructive he will be. But he remembers the rituals and the language. Tornadoes are not evil; they reset the balance in nature,” Yellowman said.
“We were very strong people,” he continued. “The Cheyenne were forced out of our home in Minnesota in the 1600s, pushed out of our original homeland by westward expansion, and to survive we had to adapt. The first challenge we had to adapt to in Oklahoma was the weather, the tornadoes.”
The Native American methods have not gone unnoticed by the community of storm watchers and meteorologists settled in the area known as tornado alley.
Randy Peppler, associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, has worked with the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and Wichita tribes to study what they have learned from nature to predict weather.
“The Kiowa women will get their families into the shelters, but then they come back up and speak to the storm. It’s a combination of traditional practices and modern knowledge,” Peppler said.
Peppler and other weather experts still cannot explain why the 2013 El Reno tornado took a sharp turn south when the meteorologists’ forecasts had it continuing on a northeastern path.
“The meteorologists said that never happens, but we know why,” Yellowman said, attributing it to the sacred ritual of talking to the tornado.