EL RENO Okla. (Reuters) - Just over a year ago, tribal elder Gordon Yellowman watched on the TV news as a mile-wide tornado roared toward the homes of his Cheyenne-Arapaho people in Oklahoma.
Sirens blared, warnings were issued and many people rushed to shelters as the weather radar warned the funnel cloud brewing would be massive and deadly.
But Yellowman and a small group of the elders huddled to perform an ancient ritual that would turn the tornado away.
“We spoke to it in our language,” he said.
After the ceremony, whose details are hidden to outsiders to protect its potency, the tornado barreling toward the Native American tribe in the red dirt state took an unexpected turn and veered away, a move not part of any computer modeling for the funnel cloud.
The El Reno tornado on May 31, 2013 was one of the widest recorded at 2.6 miles (4.2 km) and killed eight motorists - four of them so-called storm chasers. It hit just days after a tornado killed 24 people in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.
Although there is no scientific data to prove it, the rituals seem to work.
Officials in tornado-prone Oklahoma said Native American lands have suffered relatively less damage over the past 60 years from twisters that have destroyed tens of thousands of structures in other parts of the state.
Native American lands are not immune. In April, a tornado touched down on land of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, damaging about 30 homes and buildings, while in May 2010 a few homes were damaged by a tornado on land managed by Absentee Shawnee Tribal Housing Authority, the state’s Bureau of Indian Affairs said.
Tornadoes are easy to spot, if one listens to the world around them, Yellowman said.
“Nature will tell you,” said Yellowman, also a sundance priest of his tribe. “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.
The Cheyenne-Arapaho people do not leave everything to chance and have built tornado shelters for protection.
At their sprawling complex near the Lucky Star Casino in Concho is Oklahoma’s first native-owned television station, CATV-47, which airs weather warnings.
Tornado shelters have been built on the lands of Native American groups that can afford them. The state is working to help finance shelters in less economically vibrant places, including those belonging to Native Americans.
The key is communicating with the tornado, which also talks 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.
He compares his tribe’s ability to read and predict the weather to an oral Farmer’s Almanac, but with the language of the Cheyenne. His people are connected through stories, and he firmly believes the tribes have the spiritual power to protect themselves from dangerous weather.
“We were very strong people,” he said. “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 attracted the attention of the community of storm watchers and meteorologists who have settled in an area known as ‘tornado alley’.
Randy Peppler, associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, has worked with the Kiowa, Apache, Wichita and Comanche tribes to study what they have learned from nature to predict weather.
The Kiowa women say tornadoes understand their language and they can ask it for mercy. The Wichitas hold a ritual in which they throw an axe into the ground, splitting the storm so it goes around the tribe, he said.
”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.
Some groups use what is called a “cedaring ceremony” in which the smoke from a smoldering cedar tree is used to bless people taking part in the ritual.
Peppler and other weather experts are still stymied on why the 2013 El Reno tornado took a sharp turn south when their forecasts had it continuing on a northeastern path.
Yellowman attributed it to the sacred ritual of talking to the tornado.
“The meteorologists said that never happens, but we know why,” Yellowman said.
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Grant McCool