Study of national park system shows place names tied to racism, white supremacy, or genocide
As revered as America’s National Parks may be, research on over 2,000 place names in the park system shows they may be tied to white supremacy or oppression.
Natchee Barnd is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at Oregon State University. He co-authored “Words are Monuments”, which is in the latest journal, People and Nature. He and other scholars analyzed 2,241 place names in 16 national parks, and developed a tool called “decision trees”. It lets them sort and classify place names, including those that have racial slurs, replaced Indigenous names, or have elements of racism and colonialism.
“We have an idea that there might be some problematic place names, but unless you actually look at them, and catalog them, and count them, and track the history and the meaning and the intent behind them, you don’t really know what’s out there.”
All 16 parks had at least one site or feature named for people with racist ideologies, or supported genocide or oppression of Indigenous people.
An OSU press release says researchers found 107 natural features with traditional Indigenous place names, which they classified 214 names as appropriation, where Indigenous or Indigenous-sounding names were used incorrectly and without Indigenous input or consent; and 254 names that memorialize settler colonialism, such as Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, named for a French colonizer.
The release goes on to say that the researchers found 21 names that commemorate individuals who espoused racist ideas, including Hayden Valley in Yellowstone, named for Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist who wrote that unless Native Americans were forcefully assimilated, “they must ultimately be exterminated.”
More nuanced were the 364 names that researchers classified as European in origin with no record of their meaning, including descriptive names like Clear Creek and Long Pond.
Barnd said locally, sites across Crater Lake National Park were included for analysis.
“We did see that there was one called Devils Backbone and we weren’t clear on the origins,” said Barnd. “So while we did the research on these, we don’t always come to the conclusions where we’re not always able to say for sure what the intent is. But a lot of times the word “Devil” gets attached to Indigenous peoples, communities, or cultures, in this sort of Christian/non-Christian binary.”
Barnd said he’d like people to use this research to understand how place names came to be, and to help develop alternatives that don’t celebrate the removal or destruction of Native communities.
Such an undertaking should be a collaborative process, ideally with Native/Indigenous committess, added Barnd. In Oregon, a coalition of local agencies led by the Marys Peak Alliance teamed up with the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes to choose names for some unnamed creeks on Marys Peak west of Corvallis.
The next step, after reconsidering place names and potentially replacing them with traditional Indigenous history in mind, will be returning ownership to the tribes as well, Barnd said.
He says beyond parks, other sites – including buildings – can be re-evaluated.
Other co-authors on the study were Bonnie McGill, Stephanie Borelle, Grace Wu, Kurt Ingeman and Jonathan Uhuad Koch from the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C.
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