‘This is what reconciliation work can look like’

A researcher explains why she’s using settler-colonial methods to interrogate settler-colonialism in national parks.

 

Earlier this month, the academic journal People and Nature published a research article titled, “Words are Monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy.” The study examines over 2,200 place names, using maps of 16 national parks across the U.S., and explores how place names can be “a form of ‘socio-spatial exclusion.’”

The study found, for example, that all 16 of the parks it surveyed had places “named after people who supported racist ideologies, capitalized on Indigenous dispossession and colonization, and/or participated in acts of genocide.” In contrast, fewer than 5% of all observed place names were traditional Indigenous ones. “Settler colonial maps and place names that naturalize this narrative of white dominance or that displace Indigenous knowledges and presence are, thus, direct reflections of white supremacy and settler colonialism,” the report concluded.

But not all colonial place names are alike. The researchers further detailed the ways in which place names can be destructive: Some are appropriative or derogatory, others clearly racist, still others named after supporters of racist ideologies. Every name has different effects, giving each national park a unique settler-colonial profile.

High Country News spoke with Bonnie McGill, the study’s lead author, to dig into the findings.

 This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bonnie McGill is the lead author on the recent study, "Words are monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy."
Rudeen Handcrafted Ceramics & Photography

High Country News: This report analyzes place names that are offensive, disrespectful or racist. But it raises the question: How do you scientifically determine how offensive or disrespectful a place name is?

Bonnie McGill: We tried to look at not who is offended and what the emotions are, but more, “What is the evidence that these place names are connected to systems of oppression, and collective erasure of cultures?” Racism, white supremacy — those are not feelings. Those are systems that have academic definitions. Being able to connect the names to these processes, these power systems, was really important because of — as I think you’re inferring from your question — how subjective “offensive” or “disrespectful” is, person to person.

HCN: The report acknowledges that Western scientific methods such as statistical analysis, or the naming, categorizing and counting of objects, reflect a settler-colonizer worldview. It says you employ these methods partly because that’s how you’re trained, but also to use what the settler-colonizer scientific community considers its most powerful tools: classification, replicability and statistics. Is this a way of turning the settler-colonial lens back on itself?

BM: Exactly. It kind of feels like holding up a mirror, using those tools to reflect back on ourselves, or reveal what can be hard to see. I think about being a woman in workplace training situations, or talking about sexual harassment or microaggressions, and hearing men in the room say, “Well, I don’t see a problem.” That’s because of positionality. And so imagining people seeing statues coming down in the news, or changing place names of a school, a park or street, and being like, “I don’t see why that’s a problem.” Knowing Western scientists and how the dominant society follows Western scientists, how they come to define a problem relies on P-values, statistics, counting things, then to use that to show the problem. But at the very end of the paper, as you've read, I use the Audre Lorde quote, to say that the master's tools can never bring down the master’s house, right? So we can’t statistics our way out of the problem, but we’re using it as a stepping stone toward other ways of knowing and problem-solving.

Racism, white supremacy — those are not feelings. Those are systems that have academic definitions.

HCN: There’s often tension between academia and the communities it’s studying, including Indigenous communities. Do you think using academic tools to interrogate settler-colonialism can ease that tension, build bridges or tear down walls, even if it can’t dismantle the house entirely?

BM: Yeah. And I want to be really clear that we saw this work (as being) in service to campaigns to change place names, in service to Indigenous-led efforts towards Native American sovereignty and self-determination, and definitely not doing the work (of) speaking for anyone. Those folks — this is their idea. It’s not our new idea to look at changing place names. They’ve been doing this for over a century in North American contexts. This process is happening all over the world.

I hope the work can be a demonstration of an example of academics working in solidarity with Indigenous causes. But I wouldn’t say that our methodology necessarily used decolonized methodology. We definitely were using the regular old tools. And I think there’s a lot of room for academia and Western science to adopt different tools. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies book is one that a lot of people reference for that kind of thing. I see our work in a very practical sense of trying to support (Interior) Secretary (Deb) Haaland's efforts toward name changes. She, as a (U.S. congressional) representative before being secretary, proposed the legislation that now she made an order, knowing that people wouldn’t automatically all fall in line and be like, “OK, great idea. Let’s do this.” Studies like ours (are designed) to give her or her office, or other people in office, the chance to have some evidence to cite for why they’re doing this, and connecting it, not to people being offended or disrespected, but to the systems of power and disempowerment of people.

HCN: On the spider plot map, Glacier National Park seems almost exactly aligned with national averages, as far as the use of damaging place names. Do you think Glacier would make for an interesting case study of how parks can embody settler-colonialism?

BM: Glacier is a great one, because it is one where there’s more written records, bias towards settler-colonial type of research. Glacier being one of the older parks, it has such a kind of dark history, right? It would be a good one to wrestle with first.

Rising Wolf Mountain at Two Medicine Lake is viewed on June 20, 2018, near East Glacier, Montana.
George Rose/Getty Images

HCN: I was interested to see that you didn’t start with Yellowstone and go chronologically, but instead used longitude as a metric to observe the parks, moving east to west, keeping step with the way settler-colonial place naming trends may have changed with the expansion of Manifest Destiny.

BM: That was a big conversation that we had in terms of doing the analyses, because of that very thing. We could go with the year a park was established. But we decided not to do that, because that year does not represent the year that all the place names were given. A lot of times there will be like a survey done 30 years before, so when it is established as a park, it adopts the place names that already were there. And then you have ones that are named and made later on.

HCN: There were more places in the East named for white men, for example, and in the West, more appropriated Indigenous names. The study actually says 12% of place names on visitor maps use words from Indigenous languages or names of Indigenous peoples. Are there Indigenous place names in these parks that are not appropriated, and what’s the difference between an appropriated Indigenous place name and one that’s not?

BM: Yes, there is a difference. We found 107 natural features with traditional Indigenous place names — 4.8% of the data. Those are place names where we were able to find evidence that they were used by an Indigenous group. Often these places will have different names according to different tribes. But that it is one of those names, and it has been able to stick around through land dispossession, forced removal, settler colonialism, making it a park, drawing up maps and that name stuck around — which feels like, wow, those 107 are really special names. There could be more of them, because that story is often not recorded in written records. The rest of the ones that are words that come from an Indigenous language, or are the name of an Indigenous person or people, we counted as appropriated, because they were being used, often assuming mostly without the consent of those people.

HCN: One example in the report is Denali, a legitimate Indigenous place name that has persisted despite settler colonial efforts. But what’s an example of one that’s appropriated?

BM: One of my favorites is Shawnee Hills Golf Course, which is in Cuyahoga National Park. It definitely feels like some golf course is using the name of a people to further their interests. They’re capitalizing on that.

If people want to support Indigenous sovereignty and those kinds of efforts, looking at place names is a place to start. They’re these windows into a deeper history than most of us know.

HCN: Is the ultimate goal to get these place names changed in the parks?

BM: That’s one of the goals. Also, though, national parks are kind of these case studies for the rest of the United States. In some ways, they’re these very special and different places where we haven’t built cities. But a lot of the processes that went into what names are on that map are very similar to all the places outside of national parks. We chose national parks because five of the six of the co-authors are conservation scientists, and these are places where we work, and a lot of the public plays, and are part of an American patriotic identity. But to get people looking around them locally and seeing that, if people want to support Indigenous sovereignty and those kinds of efforts, looking at place names is a place to start. They’re these windows into a deeper history than most of us know.

HCN: Is there anything you feel is missing from this conversation, or anything else you want people to take away?

BM: Someone could ask the question, “Why is she telling the story, as a white settler, Western scientist?” I know that there are places where I should step up and speak truth to power and use the privilege that I’ve had to be in solidarity with Indigenous anti-oppression movements and decolonization work. And I know that there are places where I should step back and be a supporter. I’m not speaking for anyone here, but really speaking more to people in my own identity groups, to show that there’s this problem that maybe is misunderstood or not understood. I’m not blaming people, but here’s something that we’re all a part of, and moving forward, this is what reconciliation work can look like. There is a way forward.

Note: This story was updated to correct that Glacier is not the second-oldest national park; it is simply one of the older parks.

B. Toastie (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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