The peak of Denali is the highest point in the United States. Denali is the name of this mountain in the language of the Koyukon people, Indigenous Alaskans who have lived in the vicinity of Denali for thousands of years. Denali is the official name of this mountain, but it did have a stint where it was officially known as Mount McKinley. This stint lasted from 1917 to 2015. Efforts to change the official name back from McKinley to Denali started in Alaska in 1975, but were blocked at the federal level until 2015. Presumably, the Koyukon people referred to it as Denali the whole time, as did almost all locals and many Alaskans.
That there was so much pushback to changing the official name back to its previous name that it took 40 years of political effort to effect the change may seem surprising, but not when you realize this is the way white supremacy works. The same sentiment that seeks to keep statues in place to honor traitorous Confederate racists also insists that we not change the names of places, never mind that we already did change the name and we’re just trying to change it back — and this is deeply entrenched.
Bde Maka Ska
It turns out there was a lot I did not know about Garrison Keillor, but I have learned a few things since the news got out that he was fired from Minnesota Public Radio after being accused of sexual misconduct. I learned about his white supremacist views in the op-ed he wrote in defense of Al Franken, after Al Franken was also accused of sexual misconduct. Within that defense was the following:
And immediately I thought about the Minneapolis Park Board voting to rename Lake Calhoun as Lake Bde Maka Ska because the man for whom it was named back in the early 1820s was a slavery enthusiast from South Carolina and an author of the Indian Removal Act and also, judging from his pictures, ugly as a mud fence.
Renaming is a slippery business. I knew a Cheryl back in 1969 who became Saffron and it didn’t work out and a few years later she resumed her Cherylness. The Triborough Bridge in New York City was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, but if you were to ask directions to that bridge, you might wind up in Pennsylvania, a state named for the common pencil. This will happen with Lake Bde Maka Ska. The name will appear on signage, but when people look at that body of water, they will think “Calhoun.” The effect of this on the slave trade in Minneapolis will be slight.
What this completely ignores is that the lake already was renamed — to Lake Calhoun. Its name was already Bde Maka Ska, before it was unilaterally decided by white people who came to the area to rename it Lake Calhoun. Just like Denali, it already had a name. Colonial mentality is to ignore that name, give it a new name, and then rail against any attempts to “rename” it. Just in case the white supremacy was not already clear, he went ahead and finished off the argument with a slave joke to dispel any lingering doubts.
But, this is not even the ultimate irony; Garrison Keillor got famous telling us the news from Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota small town he created. So what can Wikipedia tell us about the name of that lake?
On the show Keillor says the town’s name comes from a fictional old Indian word meaning “the place where we waited all day in the rain [for you].” Keillor explains, “Wobegon sounded Indian to me and Minnesota is full of Indian names. They mask the ethnic heritage of the town, which I wanted to do, since it was half Norwegian, half German.” The English word woebegone is defined as “affected with woe.” The term is a portmanteau of “woe”, “be” and “gone”.
So it’s apparently all good for his fictional lake to have a name that “sounded Indian” to him, but changing the name of Lake Calhoun back to Bde Maka Ska is a bridge too far?
The Settler Mentality
Denali and Bde Maka Ska are not isolated cases. Virtually every natural geographical feature and every location in the United States had a name before there was ever a United States. The United States was not some big, empty place with nobody there. Scholarly consensus is that the Indigenous population in what is now the United States prior to the arrival of Europeans was in the neighborhood of 10 million. With that many people around naming things, it’s almost certain that everywhere had a name. Some places had lots of names. For an example of how Europeans regarded these names, we need look no further than Captain John Smith and what is now known as the Charles River in Massachusetts:
Captain John Smith explored and mapped the coast of New England, naming many features, originally naming the Charles River the Massachusetts River, which was derived from the tribe living in the region. When Smith presented his map to Charles I he suggested that the king should feel free to change any of the “barbarous names” for “English” ones. The king made many such changes, but only four survive today, one of which is the Charles River which Charles named for himself.
That is as white supremacist as it gets. This king, thousands of miles away, decided to name a river he would never see after himself, and the name stuck. Why do we accept this nonsense? Why do we consent to calling this river the Charles River? How is this any better than celebrating Columbus Day? Charles and Columbus were perpetrators of genocide in this very land, and now we have holidays and locations named after them. Genocide should not be honored like this.
To the United States’s credit, for every Charles or Columbia (aka Wimahl) River, there is a Mississippi or Ohio River. For every North or South Carolina, there is a North or South Dakota. The place names in the United States are not ubiquitously terrible, but they are far from great.
There are still about 175 Indigenous languages spoken in the United States, though some only by a scant few people. These languages contain thousands of names for thousands of geographical features and places. While nothing can ever undo the legacy of European colonialism in the United States, changing official place names back to those thousands of Indigenous names can at least stop honoring the people who murdered, displaced, and terrorized Indigenous people. There is no excuse for a Charles River, or a Columbus anything, and there damn sure is no excuse for a Jackson, Mississippi. These names have got to go.
This obviously is not going to be a quick and easy transition. After all, if “liberals” like Garrison Keillor rail against changing the name of just one of the supposed 10,000 lakes in Minnesota back to its pre-colonial name, just imagine the pushback from people who are even more flagrantly white supremacist. But, it can happen, one mountain, one lake, one town, one park, and one campus at a time. If there is some objectionable settler name for a geographical feature or place in your local area (and there almost certainly is), start there. If you think there’s a shot your school or college campus can be renamed to something that does not honor the bloodthirsty acts of a virulent racist, start there. If you do not know what the local Indigenous name for a place is, find an Indigenous American who does and ask. If it is something that did not have a name, ask what would be a good name for it.