Oregon State University: New study provides guidance for reconsidering harmful place names in national parks

In a new study examining the origins of more than 2,000 place names in 16 U.S. national parks, researchers have developed a tool for evaluating and changing names that may be harmful or rooted in white supremacy.

Oregon State University associate professor Natchee Barnd is a co-author of “Words Are Monuments,” published last week in the journal People and Nature. The intent of the paper is to open a conversation about place names, rather than defaulting to the assumption that those names are neutral, he said.

“There’s a process by which those names are chosen,” said Barnd, whose work focuses partly on Indigenous geography. “And if we’re operating within a system that has been grounded in white supremacy, it’s probably going to reflect that — some really explicitly and vehemently, and some by default or accidentally, such as the fact that a name is in English.”

That doesn’t mean all names need to be immediately changed, he said, but researchers sought to provide a tool people can use to think about how those names came to be.

While the work focused on national parks, the authors expect the categorization tool they developed to be applicable for people or institutions in any location seeking to improve naming practices.

For the study, researchers analyzed 2,241 place names in 16 national parks across the U.S., from Acadia in Maine to Hawai’i Volcanoes in Hawai’i. They created “decision trees” to classify name meanings into different categories, which allowed them to group together place names with similar origins so they could find and describe patterns in naming across parks in a consistent way.

Classifications included language origin; derogatory (involving use of a racial slur); erasure (such as replacement of Indigenous names); and dimensions of racism and colonialism.

All 16 parks contained at least one place or feature named after people who supported racist ideologies, capitalized on Indigenous colonization and/or participated in acts of genocide, the study said.

Researchers found 107 natural features with traditional Indigenous place names. 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.

They 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 (non-Indigenous) in origin with no record of their meaning, including descriptive names like Clear Creek and Long Pond.

“One goal is to open up the conversation and getting to the place of saying that these names are not neutral; they are values being represented in some way,” Barnd said. “Maybe we find out that the name has this whole history we don’t know about. It’s about trying to find intention, to trace a lineage. But you have to use a scientific process to sort through these names.”

This undertaking should be a collaborative process, he said. For example, in Oregon, a coalition of local agencies led by the Marys Peak Alliance recently worked with the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes to pick names for some unnamed creeks on Marys Peak, just 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.

National parks provide a perfect starting point for this process, he said. The parks have a long history of co-management with tribes, including deferring to tribal knowledge for how best to manage the land and resources, and substantial numbers of tribal members working in national parks.

“There are places where we can do things differently,” Barnd said. “Names are part of how we create the world we live in and believe in and understand. They’re not just there; we’re creating that meaning, which is also creating the meaning of ourselves.”

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