ancient echoes: tribes embrace native names

By Dennis Wagner, The Republic |
Posted 4/9/2012 04:10:18 AM

If you drive deep into the Navajo Reservation and follow U.S. 160 a few miles past the fossilized dinosaur tracks, you enter an area that you might think is the home of the tribe’s Tuba City Chapter.

That is how it’s identified on maps.

But, to the tribal government, this place is known as To’ Nanees’ Dizi’, or “Tangled Waters.” It’s a name used by ancients in their native language, known as Diné.

And, thanks to a vote some years ago by the Tribal Council, it’s also the official modern name, although the nearby town remains Tuba City.

(“Tuba” has nothing to do with a musical instrument. Rather, it was bestowed on the place by Mormon settlers in the 1870s after they befriended a local Hopi leader known as “Tuuvi.”)

The truth is, few people use the native name. Some Navajos don’t speak the Diné language. Even in official tribal publications, the words “Tuba City” always appear parenthetically next to To’ Nanees’ Dizi’.

Indigenous words denote a sense of culture, and their use reflects an evolving trend in Indian country. Still, as tribes attempt to resurrect history and instill pride through native place names, they face a gamut of political, practical and financial obstacles from Alaska to Arizona.

Keith Basso, a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who wrote “Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache,” says the renaming effort helps tribes assert identity.

“It demonstrates in the minds of many that English is a foreign language,” says Basso. “They are in a sense reclaiming their lands, erasing names that they feel are misleading, don’t belong or were imposed on them.”

Basso, a retired University of New Mexico professor who once lived among the Apaches, says he does not see a coordinated movement to rename landmarks in Indian country, but a diffuse trend. Some tribes struggle with the issue because few members speak the native tongue, or because indigenous place names have been long forgotten.

Manley Begay, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, says the phenomenon appears to be catching on nationally, in part because of increased cultural awareness in mainstream society. “It’s become a teaching tool,” says Begay, a Navajo. “It’s a bit about education. It’s a bit about respect and honor.”

Eliana Macdonald, a Canadian cartographer who works with indigenous peoples, lists a number of examples, including the former Queen Charlotte Islands, which in 2010 became known as Haida Gwaii (Island of the People), named for Indians of Alaska and British Columbia.

“I think with the resurgence of power of indigenous people, you see it happening more often,” she says. “It’s sort of a declaration of sovereignty.”

Inaccurate names

Experts say the renaming process frequently begins with an effort to eliminate pejorative or mistaken monikers.

A popular urban hiking mountain in Phoenix, long known as Squaw Peak, was officially renamed Piestewa Peak in 2003 by the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names.

The change, approved in the face of a political backlash, honored late Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi who became the first indigenous woman in U.S. military history to be killed in combat. But it also removed the word “squaw,” a common Western place name that is viewed by many as a slur.

Last year, Fort Defiance Indian Hospital on the Navajo Reservation became known as Tse’ hootsooi’, or “Meadow Between the Rocks.”

Leland Leonard, the executive director, told the Navajo Times the new name symbolizes the hospital’s recent independence from federal control. But he also noted that, to avoid costs and confusion on paperwork, its legal name will not be altered.

In Arizona, which is second only to California in Native American population, State Land Department cartographer Gene Trobia says he hasn’t seen many formal requests from tribes, but that could be because they avoid bureaucracy by simply adopting new names internally.
Beatrice Lee, director of language preservation on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, says tribal leaders recently launched a new program to reclaim indigenous names, but the formal process is so complex and costly that they’ll probably just print Apache names above the English words on existing signs.

Lee, who works with a group of elders, says some traditional names have been forgotten, and there is disagreement about others. “It’s lost pretty much,” she notes. “We’re in the generation where half our people don’t speak the language, so it’s really complicated.”

The name-change phenomenon … 


Copyright 2012 The Arizona Republic| All rights reserved.

One thought on “ancient echoes: tribes embrace native names

  1. Thanks for sharing this bit of info with us. It s always good to see and hear about a group of people deciding to pay homage to those that proceeded them. There are times when we all face that moment when we have to make a decision on whether not we will continue to carry on a viewpoint, name, or tradition that proceeds us. It’s heartwarming to know that this tribe has decided to keep the ancient name that is associated with them as a people. It is for this reason I love keeping up to date with his history makes a different on current events, ideas, and trends.


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