PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — What’s in a name? Years of oppressive history and painful slurs, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
After the word “squaw” was declared a derogatory term by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland last year, the department announced it would begin taking steps to change the titles of hundreds of geographic locations that featured the word — including 54 sites in Oregon and 18 in Washington.
And while changing the names of 72 well-known geographical locations is no small feat, a recent study conducted by Oregon State University has led researchers to develop a tool for analyzing and altering location titles that may be considered harmful or rooted in white supremacy.
The new study “Words Are Monuments,” published last week in the People and Nature journal, assessed the origins of more than 2,000 place names throughout 16 national parks to help provide guidance for reconsidering offensive titles and open a dialogue.
“There’s a process by which those names are chosen,” Natchee Barnd, an OSU associate professor and co-author of the study, said. “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.”
Barnd, an expert in Indigenous geography said not all names have to be changed but wanted the research to grant people a tool they can use to learn how and why those titles came to be in the first place.
Although Barnd’s team primarily used the categorization tool to evaluate names within national parks, he said the aid could also be easily applied by individuals or institutions to help improve naming practices for a variety of settings.
Based on the analysis of 2,241 place names in U.S. national parks, researchers generated “decision trees” to characterize name meanings or origins and track patterns.
The categories for name classifications included language origin, derogatory or use of racial slurs, erasure or replacement of Indigenous titles, along with 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 stated.
Although researchers discovered 107 natural features which held traditional Indigenous place names, 214 titles were classified as appropriation as they had incorrectly used or misspelled “Indigenous-sounding names” which were given without the consent or participation of Indigenous peoples.
Additionally, 254 names were characterized by the study as celebrating colonialization and 21 names were found to commemorate people who touted racist ideals.
“One goal is to open up the conversation and get 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.”
According to Barnd, the process of renaming sites should be a collaborative effort between Tribal and non-tribal agencies.
He said after reconsidering and possibly replacing location names with titles that focus on traditional Indigenous history, the next step would be to eventually return ownership of those places back to Indigenous people – adding that national parks would be a great place to start.
“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.”