TT: Taking Back Your Name

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one to learn why a raven is like a writing desk…  Well, actually, about why a book cover is like a door.  Then come and chat with me and Alan about names.

JANE: As I was looking for well-known locations here in New Mexico with

Kewa or Santo Domingo

names rooted in the indigenous cultures, I realized that most of the places the tourists visit have either Spanish or Anglo names.  The best I could find was Taos, which is apparently  named for a nearby pueblo.  The word from which “Taos” is derived is from the Tiwa language and means something like “in the village.”  The people who live in the pueblo have a completely different name for their village but, when asked where they lived, they must have replied “in the village.”

However, those days are ending.  More and more Indian settlements are asserting their right to be called by their original names, not the names others gave them.  Santo Domingo Pueblo now is officially “Kewa.”  In Arizona, the Pima are now known as the Akimel O’odham; the Papago prefer to be called Tohono O’odham.

Even with those groups that have not officially renamed themselves, the trend is such that work by an artist may be identified by both names.  So something from Jemez Pueblo may be also identified as from “Walatowa” – the group’s name for itself.   By the way,  “Jemez” is a Spanish version of a Towa word given as “hay mish” – the original meaning of which is still argued about.

ALAN: We are seeing the same kind of thing here. The highest mountain in New Zealand is Mount Cook. It’s named after James Cook of course (though interestingly he never saw it!). Its Maori name is Aoraki which is actually the name of a person (an old Maori name for the South Island translates as “Aoraki’s Canoe”). In 1998, the government signed an agreement with the major South Island tribe which redressed some of the wrongs perpetrated on them in colonial times. As a result of this agreement, Mount Cook was officially renamed Aoraki / Mount Cook. Both names now appear on maps and both names are commonly used (either singly or together).

JANE: Here there’s a neat story about how Washington Pass was renamed Narbona Pass.  I’m going to quote from Place Names of New Mexico by Robert Julyan: “The renaming had its roots in the discovery by some NCC [Navajo Community College] students and their teacher, Herbert Benally, that the name Washington Pass honored not George Washington or Washington, D.C., as most Navajo had assumed, but rather Col. John Washington, leader of a US military expedition against the Navajo in 1849.”

Well, as you can imagine, the Navajo didn’t much care for this.  What’s wonderful, though, is that the proposed name change was supported not only by Navajos, but by a large number of non-Navajos as well.  The new name “Narbona Pass” commemorates a Navajo leader – and advocate for peace – who was killed (and scalped) by the American forces.

This naming blends cultures in that it follows the Anglo tradition of naming for an honored person.  The Navajo traditional name was simply “Copper Pass.”  So in the name two worlds meet.

ALAN:  The meeting of two worlds sometimes has strange side effects. There’s a big volcano in the west of the North Island. The European name is Mount Egmont but for hundreds of years it was known as Taranaki by the local Maori. The name was reviewed in 1986 and now the names Mount Egmont and Mount Taranaki are used interchangeably. Interestingly the Maori prefix “Tara-” means “Mountain,” so Mount Taranaki is obviously a name supplied by the government’s official Department Of Redundancy Department.

JANE: Some people find the renaming a nuisance, particularly when the names don’t wrap easily around an English-speaker’s tongue.  Me?  I like the challenge.  Relatively soon after I moved to Albuquerque, the Navajo reservation area of Canoncito was renamed Tohajiilee.  This is pronounced something like “t/d-ha-jo-lee.”  It’s harder to say right,  than to spell (which isn’t easy).   However, I spent a pleasant fifteen minutes or so with a Navajo jeweler who tutored me until, with a big grin, he announced I had it “just right.”

ALAN: The Maori language is relatively unstressed and the syllables aren’t too hard for a European tongue to wrap itself around. The spelling is largely phonetic since the Europeans who wrote the words down were trying to transliterate what they heard (Maori do not have a written language of their own). There are some rather odd vowel sounds, but by and large it’s quite easy to pronounce. However, even though the language is the same all over the country, there are small regional differences of pronunciation. Wanganui, which I mentioned before, is a perfect example. Some people prefer to spell it Whanganui which approximates more closely to one particular pronunciation. Amusingly, after a referendum in 2009, it was agreed that both spellings would be allowed but that official government documents would standardise on Whanganui. There were no rulings on the “proper” pronunciation…

JANE: We’re running into something similar here.  One complication is that Spanish spellings don’t lead to intuitive pronunciations for non-Spanish speakers.  A good example is “Jicarilla.”  This name, which means “little cup” or “little drinking gourd,” was attached to several areas and even an Apache tribe.

Most English-speakers would pronounce it “ji-ka-ril-a.”  Its actual pronunciation is closer to “hik-a-ree-a.”    The quirks of Spanish pronunciation can be managed with a little tutoring.

However, when an Indian group insists on something being  referred to by a pronunciation closer to their language, this can cause problems.  The Hopi make a ceremonial figure called a “kachina.”  These have become very popular in art, so much so that other tribes make them for the tourist market.  Some Hopi insist that the word is pronounced closer to “katsina” and would like everything changed, but as this has led to a lot of confusion, at least at this point, the change has not become general.

ALAN: I find it fascinating that the places where you and I live are so far apart from each other and yet so similar in the way they work. Is it too trite to say that people are the same the whole world over?

JANE: It’s only trite if you forget how very different they are as well.

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4 Responses to “TT: Taking Back Your Name”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    This is a place where GIS (geographic information systems) have really messed things up, isn’t it?

    The issue is that these systems are all tables of data. If there are three different ways of spelling a place name, that’s not so useful, because different bits of data get associated with different names, and never get associated with each other.

    So now we have to standardize the names. Sigh.

  2. Paul Says:

    Not sure if this was meant as a dig at the Lone Ranger, but there was a little b western in the 1940s called “Under the Tonto Rim” (a Zane Grey title) where the hero’s Mexican sidekick says the name of the town they’ve come to, Tonto, means “stupid.” Can’t be too careful about choosing names. An old “Far Side” cartoon had a retired Lone Ranger looking up “kemo sabe” in an Indian dictionary: “Kemo sabe…’rear end of a horse’ …what the hey???”

  3. janelindskold Says:

    What’s interesting to me about names is how they shape perception.

    They aren’t just “tags,” and yet they should be part of the landscape. That’s what makes subdivisions with names like Purple Crescent — and nothing is purple — so maddening.

  4. Danny Adams Says:

    “The new name “Narbona Pass” commemorates a Navajo leader – and advocate for peace – who was killed (and scalped) by the American forces.”

    The other interesting thing about this is that “Narbona” was his Spanish name rather than his Navajo name–but the idea of giving it his Spanish name, from what I’ve heard, was supported by the Navajo because it was allowed in their custom of not naming the dead.

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