How place names impact the way we see landscape

Western landscapes and their names are stratified with personal memories, ancestral teachings, mythic events and colonial disturbances.

Imagine scaling a peak so intimidating that it was called El Capitan, a name ringing of conquest, conferred by the Mariposa Battalion, an Indian-killing militia, in the mid-1800s. Imagine the rush of surveying Yosemite Valley from high atop it. “I wanted to test myself against El Cap,” said Alex Honnold, the only climber to free solo the 3,000-foot cliff, in an April 2018 TED talk. “It represented true mastery.”

But another story of El Capitan strikes a different tone. Settler accounts say that the Southern Sierra Miwuk, for whom Yosemite is home, originally called it Measuring-Worm Stone. Two brothers were trapped atop it, and only the lowly inchworm, or measuring worm, could scale the sheer granite cliff to rescue them. It’s a story about patience, sacrifice, smallness — and, of course, resilience. The humble inchworm is a far cry from a conquistador mastering a subjugated peak.


Place names and the stories behind them define how we perceive and connect to landscape. But we live in a world populated by places named for colonizers: Libraries, streets and counties across the country bear names like Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, while “San”s and “Santa”s dot the Southwest, shadowing California’s coast in missionaries’ cloaks. Can we even see the land underneath those names, in all its complexities? And what is the impact on the mind — especially the Indigenous mind — of a lifetime spent repeating colonizers’ names, invoking their stories? 

LAURA TOHE GREW UP with two sets of place names: the colonial ones on signs, and the Diné names her relatives used. As poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, Tohe has a unique insight into the power of words.

“A lot of places are attached to story. And those stories are important for us to remember, because they’re really telling us something about ourselves and our past,” said Tohe. The stories provide a sense of belonging.

Diné stories say that Dook’o’oosłííd (“perpetually covered with snow”), colonially known as the San Francisco Peaks, rose from the underworld. “We have to show the proper reverence for these places. So we don’t pollute them,” said Tohe. When a nearby resort used recycled sewage to produce fake snow because the mountains are no longer perpetually snow-capped, Tohe and her people opposed the desecration. “That’s totally disrespecting the mountain.”

Yosemite Valley

“We have to show the proper reverence for these places. So we don’t pollute them.” 

Dził is both the Diné word for mountain and the root word of strength, dziił. “There’s philosophy attached to these mountains. They have beauty and strength,” Tohe said, and can inspire all people, Native and non-Native alike. Diné people approach the peaks prayerfully, not haphazardly, Tohe said. Her grandma taught her that you cannot do whatever you want on a mountain, or in the water. “Water has spirit,” Tohe said. If you introduce yourself, approach it respectfully, it will help you. She honors the place where her grandma taught her that lesson: “Every time I go by that spot, when I drive past that, I remember that story she told about water.”

Psychologists call this “place identity,” a social constructivist theory designed to shed light on our subjective perceptions of geography. Place identity was originally defined by psychologist Harold Proshansky in 1978 as “those dimensions of self that define the individual’s personal identity in relation to the physical environment” via “conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, values, goals, preferences, skills, and behavioral tendencies relevant to a specific environment.”

According to linguistic anthropologist Phillip Cash Cash (Cayuse and Nez Perce), in many Indigenous worldviews, people are not central to the landscape, but rather are one component participating equally with other life-forms. Recognition of a landscape produces an inner experience: The Indigenous place name orients you to its “meaning within the community mind.”

Cash Cash described community mind as “a stable set of beliefs” containing “the ongoing narrative of that community’s interaction with the world.” Ancestors who inhabited these spaces can convey teachings to their living descendants: “Their lives actually echo across the creational realm.”

Sacred sites also hold a mythic layer of significance, said Cash Cash. The topography of sacred landscapes is overlaid with mythical events that occurred during Creation. “When the two overlap, the time frame collapses, and they say that accessing these areas, those mythical beings and the energy they represent can affect you,” he said. Overwriting sacred place names with different information disrupts connections to mythic beings “still existing beyond our human realm.”

Colonial place names lack these deep connections. “A lot of these places were named after males,” said Tohe, “somebody that was in the military or had some great power in the government.” Tsé Si’ání, for example, or “Sitting Rock,” is about as basic a name as you can get — and yet it supports and is supported by the community mind of the land’s ancient people. “We named things oftentimes because of a distinct feature in the land.”

In mainstream America, Tsé Si’ání is called “Lupton.”

“That’s all it says: Lupton. Who’s Lupton?” asked Tohe. “Why should this place be named after him? We still call it Tsé Si’ání. There’s no need to say ‘Lupton,’ because that (original) place name persists.” G.W. Lupton, the town’s namesake, was an English settler who established a store in the area. But places named for settlers like Lupton present yet another problem, said Tohe: They give power to the dead.

DINÉ SPEAKERS ADD the syllable yę́ę, sometimes translated as “the late” or “deceased,” to the  name of someone who is no longer living. “In that way, we don’t call the person back or keep them from going on in their journey into the afterlife,” said Tohe. “We can’t take the names of the dead without their permission.” Tohe was unable to name one of her sons after her late father, for example, because she hadn’t asked her father’s permission while he was alive.

In Western thinking, a person is glorified when buildings or statues are named after them, she added. “In a way, we are continuing to give power to those names, like Washington and Jackson, who, in my opinion, was one of the worst presidents,” she said. “In my community, we wouldn’t give that power to that person. We may say Washington-yę́ę or Jackson-yę́ę.”

Cash Cash added that repeating colonizers’ names keeps the trauma of dispossession fresh. The loss of homelands and hunting grounds — and, especially, sacred sites — results in the fragmentation of a holistic worldview. “It always becomes sad when those places are destroyed, like from a dam or a railroad or what have you,” said Cash Cash.

Rites of Passage


Or a wagon train: Cash Cash described a section of the Oregon Trail running through his tribal homelands, dubbed “Deadman’s Pass” because settlers killed a Native family gathering food there. Cash Cash’s community tried unsuccessfully to change the name and historical placard, which he said gives a pleasant view of settlers.

“It’s fairly common, and it is a part of the unwillingness of the colonial structure and history to change in recognition of these tragedies and traumas and injustices,” Cash Cash said. “At some point, it just becomes unspeakable.”

Meanwhile, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center’s website claims that four settler freight haulers were actually killed there, “victims of the Indian uprising.”

When settler narratives don’t align with Indigenous ones, Cash Cash says, it creates “a parallel meaning system,” where multiple community minds overlay one landscape. This gets complicated when historical facts are not agreed upon.

“It’s fairly common, and it is a part of the unwillingness of the colonial structure and history to change in recognition of these tragedies and traumas and injustices.”

I WANTED TO KNOW HOW Yosemite’s original people see El Capitan, and to hear the story of Measuring-Worm Stone from a tribal elder. So, in March, I spoke on the phone with Southern Sierra Miwuk elder and historian Bill Tucker, and Vernett “Sis” Calhoun, a community volunteer and the chair of the Wahhoga Committee, which is working to re-establish a Miwuk village in Yosemite Valley.

There was just one problem: Tucker seemed unaware of Measuring-Worm Stone, the story or the place name, while Calhoun found the story in a book she bought in Yosemite, but didn’t know whether it really had a Miwuk origin. “When the settlers came to our land, they did not really understand the way our people spoke,” she said. “So when they took notes and wrote things down, who’s to say that it’s the true story?”

The Measuring-Worm Stone story appears in settler accounts as early as 1877, in non-Native ethnographer Stephen Powers’ journal, Tribes of California. In his telling, two boys were magically trapped atop Measuring-Worm Stone. By 1997, a version with bears instead of boys appeared in a children’s book by non-Native folklore enthusiast Robert D. San Souci, who also wrote the story that inspired Disney’s Mulan.

“Who do you believe?” Calhoun said. “We don’t have that many elders left.”

Convoluted stratification of inaccurate histories and dubious Indigenous stories reflects the many layers of colonization: dispossession, removal, abuse, environmental and cultural degradation, followed by feeble attempts at restitution, such as gift-shop children’s books.

We can’t always know what stories belong to the landscape and its Indigenous peoples. This makes it hard to know what to call some places. Denali, for example, had many Indigenous names from different peoples. But when “Mount McKinley” was officially renamed in 2015, state and federal officials had to decide on one of them. Cash Cash says these complications become part of the story. “When an Indigenous place is named, or renamed, either its ancestral name or a new name, then you’re evoking reconnection,” he said. The experience of loss or removal becomes part of your history and your healing. When non-Natives approach the landscape with openness to its lessons, he added, they can learn their place on it, too. Tohe said that when a sacred name persists, it can be an agent of healing. “When you call a place by its sacred name, you are in a sense using transformation.” she said. “The story can persist. It’ll always be there, it’ll be attached to the land as long as we remember that story. I don’t think those stories ever go away.”

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (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.