by Dr. Bonnie McGill
US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (a member of the Laguna Pueblo) recently initiated a task force to address derogatory place names on federal lands, including names using “squaw.” As the first Native American to serve in her cabinet-level post, Haaland has a deep understanding of the importance of the task force’s work, but is everyone on board?
Why are place names important? According to a recent study I led, addressing place names could be a starting point for reckoning with the US history of dispossession of Indigenous nations from their homelands. The study, published this spring in People and Nature, demonstrates the dual impacts of problematic place names, e.g., commemorating racial violence while simultaneously erasing longstanding and often spiritually connected Indigenous names for landscape features.
The study: “Words are monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy”
Many consider national parks our nation’s “best idea”i but don’t realize how park place names cover up the parks’ violent histories. Among the 16 studied national parks and their over 2,200 place names we found:
- 52 places named for settlers who committed acts of violence against groups, often populations of Indigenous peoples. For example, Mount Doane in Yellowstone National Park, and Harney River in Everglades National Park, both homelands of Indigenous nations, commemorate individuals who led massacres of Indigenous peoples, including women and children.
- 205 settler place names replacing recorded traditional Indigenous place names. (This count of replacement names is surely an underestimate because written records are biased toward settler histories, much Indigenous knowledge is maintained through oral traditions, and Indigenous knowledge keepers were rarely consulted when settler maps were made.)
- 10 racial slurs
- 214 examples of appropriation from Indigenous languages
- 107 natural features retaining traditional Indigenous place names
Native American groups including the Blackfeetii and Lakota have called for changing place names at national parks and national monuments for over a century (see pictures below). The research my five co-authors and I conducted was in service to such local and national name-changing campaigns. Place names have been used by colonizers and later settlers as a “technology of power” to justify their occupation of Indigenous lands and hierarchical social structuresiii. In the words of Indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou Māori) “renaming the landscape [as part of the colonial project] was probably as powerful ideologically as changing the land”iv. To me, the study’s findings demonstrate how place names in the parks contribute, at a system-wide scale, to the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty over their homelands. Reconciling this wrong will require a system-wide response, such as Secretary Haaland’s task force and future task forces to address more than just derogatory names.
In discussions with Kiaayo Tamisoowo (Bear Returning over the Hill) Chief Stanley Grier (Fig. 1B) of the Piikani Nation and Blackfoot Confederacy, he said that our study has
shed important light on the true spirit and facts pertaining to National Park Place Names which were in place since time immemorial by our ancestors. To give Place Names [such as Mt. Doane in Yellowstone] to persons who authorized and who carried out the massacre of approximately 173 of my ancestors in 1870 on the Marias River, Montana is an atrocity that only perpetuates the illegitimate honor of persons that would be classified as War Criminals. Hayden Valley ought to be changed to Buffalo Nations Valleyv and Mount Doane to First Peoples’ Mountain.
I also recently spoke with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Great Sioux Nation. For decades Chief Looking Horse has sought to change the name of Devils Tower, the enormous, landscape-dominating igneous rock formation in northeastern Wyoming that is the namesake of Devils Tower National Monument. His proposal to change the name of the geologic feature to Bear Lodge has sat with the US Board of Geographic Names since 2015 due to stalling by congressional representatives from Wyoming. Bear Lodge is a sacred site to many native nations including the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. The site’s current name originated from the mistaken settler belief that Native religious rituals conducted there were forms of devil worship.
When I asked Chief Looking Horse why returning traditional place names is meaningful to him he said,
We as a people of the Earth are connected to Mother Earth, the source of life. Our history is spiritually connected to the Earth. We take care of the Black Hills, the heart of Mother Earth, through ceremony. Returning place names is needed more than ever because of the global disasters. The name of sacred sites came from the spirit, through ceremony, through prayer. For example, Mato Tipila, Bear Lodge is where the White Buffalo Calf Woman brought us the sacred pipe. I am the 19th generation keeper of the sacred pipe. And yet a soldier can just, out of anger and hatred to our people, rename such a sacred place Devils Tower. In our sacred language we don’t even have a word for devil. Returning Mato Tipila, Bears Lodge is the most important derogatory name for Deb Haaland to address.
Some readers might label this study and its attention to place names as a part of cancel culture. To me, that is a red herring that distracts from the need for the dominant US culture to reckon the US history and living legacies of land dispossession and genocide of Native American peoples, a long process repeatedly marked by instances where peoples were separated from their lands.
Reckoning with the past is necessary for all peoples to move forward together into a future that is more equitable and sustainable. This concept is a guiding principle for the work we do in the Anthropocene Studies Section at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Part of my motivation for this work was to understand the kind of restorative actions involved with the reckoning of US history and on-going harms of settler colonialism.
A closing thought on “wilderness”
In popular US culture, our national parks and wilderness areas are thought of as places to escape; places to be out there with “real nature”. But settlers had to first make national parks and wilderness areas free of human occupation. Much of the awe that current national park lands inspired among European colonizers was in part the result of active ecosystem management by Indigenous peoples living with the land. Many national park ecosystems were dramatically changed with the loss of Native American stewardship (e.g. preventing forest fires)vi.
As the first and now second edition of “We Are Nature” demonstrate for museum visitors, humans are part of, not separate from, nature. In fact, most of terrestrial Earth has been stewarded for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples. So the idea of an uninhabited “wilderness” is less ecological science and more of a settler colonial myth. That doesn’t mean national parks haven’t come to play an important role in conservation of biodiversity or that we shouldn’t visit national parks. I suggest, however, that we visit with greater awareness of park history and of the peoples for whom those lands are their homelands. I also suggest environmentalists use the term wilderness with care and understand it’s social-cultural implicationsvii.
People can take action by getting involved with a national campaign launched at WordsAreMonuments.org by the social justice pop-up museum, The Natural History Museum. Also, check out this new guide on how individuals, community groups, and Tribal Nations can change place names. The public is also invited to comment on potential replacements for derogatory names on federal lands by April 25.
Bonnie McGill, Ph.D. is a science communication fellow for the Climate and Rural Systems Partnership and based in the Anthropocene Studies Section at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
[i] From an essay by Wallace Stegner: “The Best Idea We Ever Had” in Wilderness magazine, Spring 1983 p4-13.
[ii] A note on Blackfeet vs. Blackfoot: The nation in what is now Montana is Aamskapi Pikuni (Blackfeet Nation, including individuals shown in Fig. 1A), a member of Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy), which also includes the Kainai-Blood Tribe, Siksika, Peigan-Piikani (including Chief Grier in Fig. 1B).
[iii] Rose-Redwood, R., Alderman, D., & Azaryahu, M. (2017). The urban streetscape as political cosmos. In R. Rose-Redwood (Ed.), The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics, and Place (pp. 1–24). London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9781315554464
Alderman, D. H. (n.d.). Commemorative Place Naming: To Name Place, To Claim the Past, ToRepair Futures. In F. Giraut & M. Houssay-Holzschuch (Eds.), Naming Places. London:ISTE-Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341412389
[iv] Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd Ed.). 1025 London: Zed Books Ltd.
[v] The sovereign Tribal Nations of Yellowstone formally requested the Yellowstone Superintendent to support changing Hayden Valley to Buffalo Nations Valley (see Fig. 1B). Ferdinand Hayden was a geologist who led the first federally funded geological survey of Yellowstone in 1871. His report was essential in persuading Congress to establish the national park. His report also called for the forced assimilation or, failing that, extermination of Native Americans. Other writings of his also demonstrate his white supremacist worldview, a tool used by settler colonizers to justify dispossessing Native Americans from their lands.
[vi] Read more about this in:
Anderson, M. K. (2013). Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Oakland: University of California Press; Kimmerer, R. W., & Lake, F. K. (2001).
Maintaining the Mosaic: The role of indigenous burning in land management. Journal of Forestry, 99(11), 36–41. doi: 10.1093/jof/99.11.36
Kimmerer, Robin W. (2012). Braiding Sweetgrasss : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions
[vii] Fletcher et al. 2021. Indigenous knowledge and the shackles of wilderness. PNAS https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022218118
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: McGill, Bonnie
Publication date: April 6, 2022