TT: Indigenous Roots

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back one and join in the discussion of the art of Melissa Zink and the question of what the physical book means to you.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture into the roots of place names.

Acoma Pueblo

JANE: We were venturing into the territory of the exotic names attached to our landscapes that connect us to the indigenous peoples who lived here before us and – in places like New Zealand and New Mexico – still live with us.

Alan, you’ve already given an example in the place of the man with the big knees and the nose flute, but do you have another?

ALAN: Yes I do – but first I need to digress slightly and explain a bit of background. In New Zealand the Maori language is ubiquitous. All the tribes spoke the same language and had a common culture. That influence remains very strong and so Maori names for places are used all the time all over the country, though they may sound a little odd to foreign ears. My favourite is Wanganui (that’s pronounced “one-gu-noo-ee”). A local TV comedy programme used to have a segment they called “The Deliberate Mispronunciation Of Maori” and they mangled that into “wan-gan-you-eye”, which I found quite hilarious! Even my Maori friends laughed at it.

JANE: I’d like to start with a place I talked about in my Wednesday Wandering for 10-27-10 – Acoma Pueblo.   “Acoma” falls into the relatively mundane name category.  It translates from its original Keresan as “people of the white rock.”   In earlier texts, Acoma is refereed to as “Ahacus” and later “Acuco,” which shows how often words are transliterated differently by different listeners.

Showing that names are subject to change, Acoma has picked up a modern nickname – “Sky City” – which celebrates its elevated location.

That’s just one name, from one language group.  Here in the American Southwest, we’re blessed with a great number of tribes, each with their own languages.  We have Navajo, Apache, Zuni, and Hopi.  Although they’re frequently lumped together, the various “Pueblo” groups speak languages that fall into several distinct groups: Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, and Keresan.

ALAN: Ah! You’ve already arrived at the place I was heading to.  In Australia, the situation was quite similar to what you have in New Mexico.

The Aboriginal tribes did not have a common culture and there were literally hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages. Nevertheless, Australia still uses many Aboriginal place names which sound somewhat exotic to our ears and which, because of the different languages, also seem quite dissimilar to each other.

For example, Western Australia is mostly desert, so water is obviously very important. In one Aboriginal language the “oo” suffix means “by water” and so we have towns called Wanneroo and Innaloo. Another Aboriginal language in the same area uses the “up” suffix in a similar context, hence  Joondalup and Karrinyup. Those two tribes lived close together and neither could speak the other’s language. But their heritage remains.

JANE: Ah, hah!  I see now why in his novel The Last Continent Terry Pratchett named that one town “Buggerup”  and why, despite the obvious joke, the name seemed to fit so nicely into Australian naming structures.

ALAN: I seem to recall that he also had a place called “Didjabringabeeralong” which also seems to fit nicely into this structure but which is, of course, a reference to something else entirely! Pratchett is a very clever man.

Sometimes the sense of history associated with the names used by various indigenous people also shows that no matter how different our cultures are, we all have a shared sense of place and values. This can lead to surprising resonances. For example I once stumbled upon a small, out of the way cottage by the coast in the far north of New Zealand. It had a nameplate attached: “Wharemoana.”  That translates as House (“Whare”)  of (or by) the sea (“moana”). In other words, prosaically, Seahouse or, stretching it a little bit, Seahouses. And the reason that resonated with me is that my father’s side of the family comes from a town in Northumberland in the north of England which is called Seahouses. Suddenly I felt at home even though I was on the far side of the world.

JANE: I may be a sentimentalist, but that actually made me tear up.  It’s wonderful you found a piece of home away from home.  I suspect this is the very impulse that leads to so many colonial places being named “New” something – a desire to feel you’ve brought a bit of  home to your new home.

ALAN: And New Zealand is the perfect example of that. Zealand (or more accurately Zeeland) is an area of Holland and I assume that’s where the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman came from. He was  the first European to see New Zealand, though he didn’t land, he just sailed on by.

JANE: This question of  names and what they mean to those who live on the landscape  brings me to a change I’ve seen happening during the time I’ve lived in the Southwest – the reclaiming by indigenous peoples of the names they gave to their landscape.  It’s a complex topic, though,  so I’d like to save for next week.

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3 Responses to “TT: Indigenous Roots”

  1. John C Says:

    Even without curious transliteration, place names in the American south can also be strange. I grew up in a town called Lynchburg. For most folks from the States, this conjures up horrible images of racial violence. In fact, the town is named after a Quaker merchant who ran a ferry. (Quakers are a remarkably non-violent religious group directly involved in the abolition of slavery.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I believe that Lynchburg periodically debates changing the name to “Lynch’s Ferry” for just the reasons you mention.

      It’s a pretty place and deserves a prettier name.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    As I noted in a previous post, I’ve been reading a wonderful book on how Apaches relate to their places (Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso). Their names are little sentences, highly descriptive, and linked to their history so tightly that they’ll refer to places in conversation as a shorthand for commentary on what someone did (in effect, saying that someone made a mistake like the one that proverbially happened at such-and-such a place).

    I’m forcibly drawn to contrast that with a housing development that’s going in next to us. The people who did the initial planning have a different name than the people who are building the homes, and the development had a different name in the planning stage than it does now. I’d thought there might be something illegal about the way they were going about it, but this constant name changing, coupled with lazy record-keeping by the city, makes it difficult to track through the reams of paperwork. What’s happening, most likely, is that the same group of people is working through a slew of corporations to make it harder to take legal action against them.

    It says something about our suburban culture, that such actions are seen as normal. Not good or desirable, but just the way things are done. It’s a culture of alienation, really. Our place names are deliberately kept as powerless as possible, chosen only for some momentary legal or marketing advantage. We “consumers” end up in a place where we don’t know our transient neighbors, and most of us have no relation to the land around us at all.

    It is very much the logic of an invading army, isn’t it? To bad we’re encouraged to live our lives this way. Heck, in our new-model cars, the GPS has a way of flagging where home is, so you don’t even need to learn the local streets. Just wait for the car to tell you where to drive, so you can stay distracted.

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