Last month, the Home Office called for nominations for a new Place Names Reconciliation Advisory Committee. The goal is to replace derogatory names on millions of acres administered by the DOI, including national parks, Bureau of Land Management lands and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserves.
It’s a complicated task full of historical nuances, racism and pioneering exuberance. There will be expensive changes to brochures, maps and road signs. There will also be opposition. Some in the small town community won’t want to give up a century-old moniker.
Names matter. Place names reflect past experiences with a diverse western landscape, but also a sense of place. Yet for some Americans, place names represent derision and exclusion. The National Park Service formed the committee at the request of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who wants the pejorative term “squaw” removed from all federal lands, despite having no jurisdiction over the lands. of the US Forest Service, which report to the Secretary of Agriculture.
“Too much of our nation’s land and water continues to carry on a legacy of oppression,” she said. “This important advisory committee will be an integral part of our efforts to identify places with derogatory terms whose expiration dates are long overdue.”
Across the West, similar campaigns have taken place piecemeal. It is a timely process. The US Board on Geographic Names reviews name changes and then requires a five-year wait. In Alaska, it took years for Mount McKinley, the tallest peak on the North American continent, to revert to its native name, Denali, or “the high.” The name McKinley was given a century ago by white settlers in Alaska to honor the 25th President, William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. Today, the name of the mountain and the name of Denali National Park are identical.
Arizona politicians decided to change the name of Squaw Peak near Phoenix to Piestewa Peak to honor a Hopi and Hispano soldier who died in Iraq in 2003. Recently, Colorado Governor Jared Polis relaunched the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board to recommend changing names in our Centennial State. , including Squaw Mountain to Mesta’hehe Mountain, and to consider other place names.
Under consideration, the Gore mountain range named in the 19th century for Englishman Lord St. George Gore, who fought his way through the West by shooting antelope, deer, bison and elk by the hundreds. He was far from an innocent, “leave no trace” ecotourist. Mount Evans’ name may be dropped because Colorado Territory Governor John Evans was complicit in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre that killed dozens of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho who were attacked at dawn in a winter camp which had been reserved for them by the American army.
The name Kit Carson Peak may be replaced because the little trapper and silent guide Kit Carson helped round up the Navajo and forced them on The Long Walk to an open-air prison in New Mexico called Bosque Redondo. A closer historical examination of Carson’s actions reveals that he disobeyed military orders. He could have been court-martialled. At one point, a general told him to kill all adult male Navajos, but Carson refused to give his soldiers that order. Instead, they waged a war of destruction burning peach orchards, cornfields and hogans in the Navajo stronghold of Canyon de Chelley, forcing the surrender of frozen and destitute clans while other chiefs took their families and fled west to Bears Ears and Navajo Mountain.
Negro Draw and Negro Mesa in Colorado may have new names, but Negro Bill Canyon near Moab, Utah is said to have been named by locals to honor an early black cowboy and settler. What to do with a well-meaning honorary title? As the present collides with the past, none of this is easy. Was Chinaman Flat an epithet or an acknowledgment of where the Chinese lived on the edge of a mining camp? Can you right the wrongs of the story by changing the place names? No, but you can choose what you want to remember.
Is Murdered Mexican Flat pejorative? What to do with place names that crystallize a historical event, like in Routt County in the White River National Forest where Murdered Mexican Flat is a mnemonic device that compels us to recall a lucky Hispanic shepherd at the cards? The shepherd gambled his wages and won, but on the way back to his sheep camp his luck ran out. The cowboys he was playing poker with surreptitiously followed him into the dark and killed him. The name of the shepherd is forgotten. Marking the place of his death with a small cross on a US Forest Service map and giving it a place name is all the memory he has.
When Native Americans demanded that the Custer Battlefield National Monument in Montana be renamed, a border fight spilled over into the halls of Congress with Custer fans appearing in long hair, twirling mustaches and adorned with buckskin. They loved their loser, but no military site bears the name of a general, so it is now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, in line with all other American Civil War and battle sites that bear the name of the place where they occurred.
To this new committee, Secretary Haaland will appoint a representative from a Native Hawaiian organization; a person from a tribal organization; four members of a Native American tribe; four citizens with expertise in civil rights or race relations; four academics with knowledge of cultural studies, history, geography or anthropology; and three members of the general public. They will have a lot of work to do.
Take for example beloved Yosemite National Park, one of the crown jewels of the Park Service. At the start of the California Gold Rush, pioneer vigilantes calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion drove out the Miwok people who had named the valley Ahwahnechee. The word Yosemite refers to the menacing militia. It means “those who kill” or “killers”.
And what about Devils Tower in Wyoming, the first national monument designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906? More than two dozen Great Plains tribes prefer their own names, which translate to Bear Lodge or Mato Tipi in Lakota. Kiowa’s history of the volcanic plug is described by N. Scott Momaday in his classic book “The Way to Rainy Mountain”.
He explains that some girls were being chased by a boy who had become a bear. To help them, the creator told the girls to stand on a stump that was starting to rise. The bear kept attacking, scratching the stump and carving deeply into the long vertical lines of stone, which are some of the best rock climbing cracks in North America. The strain rose higher and higher. Finally, the creator saved the girls by throwing them into the sky where they became the constellation the Greeks named the Pleiades. An 1875 mistranslation by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge’s interpreter gave the igneous rock the name “Bad God’s Tower”, hence the recorded geographic name of Devils Tower.
Examining the names of mountains, mesas, canyons, and deserts on US public lands will present a formidable geographical challenge. Revisiting American history challenges us all, but our nation and our culture are not static. We look back to be able to move forward.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Contact him at [email protected]