While tornadoes continue to tear across America's midsection — taking lives and destroying property — we continue to search for explanations of the phenomenon, in hopes of developing better warning systems and protection.
But after decades of research, funded by decamillions of dollars, the fundamentals of wind funnels remain somewhat mysterious.
What causes a tornado? According to the American Museum of Natural History: "No one knows for sure."
Silver Horn Calendar
In some ways, we are no closer to an explanation than were the Native Americans who experienced similar devastation more than 100 years ago.
We wanted to see what earlier Americans — people who perhaps had different perspectives on the natural world — believed were the roots of the destructive winds. So we turned to the Silver Horn Calendar Record kept by Kiowa artists for much of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Over the course of 100 years or so, the Kiowa tracked the seasons — and dramatic occurrences — by naming them and drawing essential pictures. A copy of the chronicle belongs to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
(Side note: The museum is in Norman, which is also home to the federal Storm Prediction Center that tracks the country's severe weather.)
The first year of the Silver Horn calendar was 1828, known as Pipe Dance Summer. The hot days of 1855 were recorded with a drawing of a man with very long hair and feathers on his head. It was known as Long-haired Pawnee Killed Summer. The Horses Ate Ashes Winter of 1862-63 shows a horse that cannot find grass to eat in the deep snows.
And the summer of 1905 — pictured in the middle panel above — was called Great Cyclone Summer. It is a graphic depiction of a tornado's destruction — of human life and property.
The cause of the twister? According to the Kiowa, it was the Storm-Maker Red Horse, a supernatural being with the upper body of a horse and a long, snakelike tail that whipped around and created tornadoes. The beast struck again in the last panel: Red Horse Winter.
Like us, those earlier Americans struggled to understand the nature of tornadoes.
"The cultural diversity of Oklahoma's native communities," says Jason Baird Jackson, director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, "is in part rooted in their histories. Oklahoma is home to native peoples whose ancestors lived in California and those who lived in Florida and in many places in between. From this perspective, there were once — and are today — diverse understandings of what a tornado is."
Jason says, "One widespread theme in this area concerns the ability of Native people to turn or reroute storms away from people in their path. The means and beliefs here are diverse, but in many Oklahoma communities, it was — often still is — understood that such a person with the right knowledge or personal power could do this."
This was understood as a variety of "medicine" power, he says. "People known — understood — to be able to do this still exist in some communities, but there is a general sense that such people are not as numerous or as powerful as they once were and that this relates to the loss of the associated traditional knowledge. While some Native people embrace the standard scientific model of tornadoes, and many understand them from Christian points of view, there are also people who entertain or embrace ancestral points of view in which some people have power to do things in the world and that a tornado is a phenomenon eligible for human manipulation."
Those who do "engage with such ancestral perspectives," Jason says, "often regret their diminishment in the contemporary era."
He adds: "In reporting this to you, I do not wish to engage in the exoticization of Native cultures or Native peoples. My point is simply to reaffirm the fact that Americans have a diversity of perspectives on the world and that Native perspectives are still too-rarely acknowledged to even exist, let alone to be understood meaningfully and seriously."
The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers - Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj