Of all the things that veteran “weather god” Charles England regrets about his tenure as the main meteorologist for Channel 9 in Oklahoma City is that he never consulted local tribes about their knowledge of tornadoes.
The New York Times Magazine this week profiles the weather guru of Tornado Alley, as the swath of storm-prone flatlands in central Oklahoma is known. This past spring saw some of the most devastating tornadoes in history rip through the state, decimating Indian country.
“One big regret, he said, is that although he grew up surrounded by Cheyenne people in Seiling, he never asked them about tornadoes,” wrote Sam Anderson at the end of a several-page story in The New York Times Magazine of Sunday August 11. “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.”
The writer was told the same thing by Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service, that little indigenous tornado knowledge had survived.
“Both men had an attitude of sad resignation,” Anderson wrote. “Despite all of our Dopplers and Storm Trackers and Dominators, the feeling seemed to be, we have lost the old wisdom forever.”
Anderson contacted the Cheyenne Nation and spoke with Chief Gordon Yellowman, who told him what little the elders are able to share.
“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,” Anderson learned. “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.”