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Native Place Names

In the history of Colonization, the colonizers sought to rename the landscape after the things they were familiar with. They sought to bring the names of their favorite bible characters, figures in history, or hometowns, or countries with them to their new home and somewhat recreate that vision. That is how we got many of the names in Oregon. Eugene is named for Eugene Skinner. Mt. Hood is named for Admiral Hood. Lincoln City is named for President Abraham Lincoln. Salem, means peace in the mid-east.

The process of naming or renaming is a colonial process that seeks to eliminate the previous indigenous structure of the land, to take ownership from Indigenous peoples, and to rewrite history and the landscape. While renaming is happening, indigenous peoples are being removed from their lands in wholly discriminatory manners. Wars are made on them, diseases eliminate them, and numerous acts of aggression, murder and genocide is imposed upon them. removal of all indigenous peoples from the land is the goal. sometimes it takes a few decades but that is the ultimate goal. Through assimilation, re-education, refusal to allow them to keep and get land, or through creating pseudo-scientific rationals like “blood quantum” to measure their degree of Indian-ness. Regardless of the technique, the goal is to eliminate indigenous peoples and to re-inscribe the land with a colonial and “white” structures and philosophies.

Re-naming is part of this colonizing process.

Some Native people’s names have survived. Their place-names become unique identifiers for the area and some of the settlers appreciated that. Sometimes the names that survive represent some ideal that the colonizers honored. Seattle is named for Chief Seattle who was honored and respected by many settlers who came to the territory. These native words enter into American settler languages and become important unique identifiers for the region. Words like Willamette. and Yamhill even becomes somewhat altered or Americanized. They are changed to fit into the new culture forming. Willamette originates with a Clackamas village called Wilamt, while Yamhill is a version of Yamel. Yam-hill is both words in English and thus recognizable.

There are a few names that are mythologized Native placenames. Many people assume that Wy-east is the original name for Mt. Hood, but it is possibly invented by scholars in the early 20th century. Frederic Balch does not use it in his 1897 historical fiction book Bridge of the Gods,  but the name is joined with his story in a play derived from the book by a Pacific College theater arts production that began in 1911. The play and book became so popular that the story was taught as actual historical fact in Portland schools. Scholars have struggled to find the original word as there is nothing yet found written down. There is a possible origin in around 1911 in a minister’s account from Hood River where he learned the word Wy-east from a Cascades women living in Hood River. The native name for such mountains in the Kiksht dialect is Pahto.

Native people now would like to replace many of the colonial place names back to the original. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the renaming or reversing of the place name Mount McKinley with Denali the original native place name. Apparently, the majority of Alaskans supported this. For native peoples who have lived in these lands for over 10,000 years, our names are the longest lasting place names and deserve to be honored again.

I have helped this effort, beginning when I was the Culture manager at the Grand Ronde tribe. I helped name schools (Kalapuya Elementary), and programs (Chifin Native center), Bridges (Tilikum Crossing, and Wilamet Crossing), UO dorm (Kalapuya Illihi) and a park (Khunamokwst Park). I also served for a time on the Oregon Geographic Names Board (2010-2012?).  I still value replacing Native placenames. I have aided in replacing a few of the Squaw place names in Oregon.

Recently is have found numerous previously used place names that can be added to the national database to help save the history of a place. The Geographic Name Information System included variant names. I have begun requesting that some variant names be preserved in the database.

The latest is Chemeketa Creek, a variant of Mill Creek in Salem Oregon.

Most recently I have begun working on some Tillamook Placenames.   Part1, Part2

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