In Which I Have This Song Stuck In My Head All Day - Say My Name Say My Name It's Mount Denali Not Mount McKinley Why You Running Game or Your Settler Colonialism is Showing You Better Get That Treated
Here's a true story. One time I was watching this documentary about Natives and the environment and there was this really cute Native guy just talking away and I thought, "that's a good looking, smart Native dude" and then in the middle of the documentary he starts talking about his perfect wife and I thought "awe man. He's married." And then finally you get to see his perfect wife and it turns out she's a friend of mine from college and I was like "OF COURSE SHE MARRIED THE HOT NATIVE DUDE." So basically, I'm only one degree away from him. Not that I'm stalking him, or whatever.
A couple of months ago they were on The Daily Show talking about changing the name of what was called "Mt. McKinley" to "Mt. Denali" a Native Alaskan name for the mountain that means "the high one or the great one."
Years ago they renamed the mountain after President McKinley, who, if you watch The Daily Show segment - never climbed the mountain, never saw the mountain, and never did anything in, around of for Alaska because "Alaska was not a state at the time." (He is also lovingly described as "Not one of the best Presidents, but certainly not one of the worst.")
The curator of Mckinley's Presidential Museum argues that if you start un-naming mountains then people may start forgetting about President Mckinley. And The Daily Show Correspondent asks "What do you know about Athabaskan culture?" She replies "Not a thing." And he says "It would be good if there was a way to remind people and help people learn a little bit about it." Indeed.
Watch the entire video here.
Jon Stewart begins the report with a question... "What's in a name?" Don't worry, I got this Jonny. So here goes.
Just the other day I sat down and perused my newsfeed only to discover that President Obama (of the #ObamaDontCare second Presidential term) signed the order to (re)name Mount McKinley in Alaska to it's given name -- Mount Denali.
That's right, score one for the Indigenous Alaskans, score one for old stories, score one for the story of a land and landscape that is based on an ancient knowing of land and place. It's Mount Denali beezies... deal with it.
I (as I am an Indigenous person who reads/watches/peruses several news outlets, feeds etc.) braced myself for the inevitable (oh it's coming), meandering (there will be many misspelled words), uninformed (and someone will mention something about how Natives lost the war) responses that include claims like:
or my favorite
Denali is actually a Kenyan word for "Black Power." No it's not. Get off my porch.
My expectations were met, of course, especially when one dude running for President said (I paraphrase) "I'll change the name back if I'm President" and I smiled and thought "So no worries Denali... you're safe. He ain't gonna be President." (Hey Cutcha, how come you don't say his name? How come you call him one dude running for President? Well, it's hard to keep track of all the white dudes jumping around trying to be President, but also, I could just see him drooling as he googles his name over and over again and reads all the many references and he finds mine and gets mad and tweets me something rude. I don't have enough time to be tweeted rude things but some dude.)
I am fascinated by the gut punch response that seems to come from people who take the time to write "OH GOD is this really important? Who cares? It's just a name?"
Naming something is a very powerful thing. In fact I have actually written about this before (in one of my academic articles). Naming was so important that as the Spanish are wandering around the planet trying to claim territory they kept going around naming everything "little Spain" or "teeny tiny Spain" or "Little Spain Episode 5 Little Spain Strikes Back" because they definitely didn't want anyone thinking it was "Little Netherlands" or "Little France" or "Little Britain" because Britain was already going around naming things "New England" and that's just unacceptable.
One of the first things that colonizers/invaders do is RE-name the land, the people, the trees, the oceans because whoevers name sticks... wins. That, in their opinion, shows OWNERSHIP. Yes, it's just a word, but WORDS MATTER.
If a scientist "discovers" a disease, he gets to name it. If an astronomer "discovers" a star... he gets to name it. If an Indigenous person "discovers" a method for assuring that there will be less forest fires, that the land will be well cared for, and that the soil will be better to grow things... they get told they are wrong, and then many, many years later some scientist goes "we should practice controlled burning" and they have NAMED this new methodology.
Naming also marks our history. Our history is written in our names, it's written in how we name things, and naming is a part of how we tell this history. We don't call him King Henry we call him King Henry VIII. He's not the eighth Henry, there were probably thousands of Henrys before that... he is the eighth Henry of his family named after seven other very particular Henrys (He's number eight, and he cray). That's history, right there, in a name.
Here's something I wrote in my article about naming (that's right I'm quoting myself):
There is so much in a name. There is power in a name. There is the right to self, respect of knowledge and acknowledgement of existence in a name. When Indigenous people were forced to accept the renaming of their lands and, in many instances, forced to accept new names for their own peoples and themselves, this was a systematic attempt to destroy these peoples. In Boarding Schools, Indigenous children were forced to give up their Indian names in favor of names like “John” or “Jacob.” The repercussions of this loss of identity and personal autonomy are still being felt today.
Now, the replacement of Indigenous names with names from a random guy who says he discovered this mountain even though Indigenous people were living on that mountain (AHEM Mt. SHASTA) is a very powerful way of saying "we are the first, the rightful, the only real owners of this place. We have successfully occupied this joint." That erasure is what we are trying to address as we focus on things like the names of our lands and places.
The "gut reaction" I was talking about -- that's settler colonial fear. It's the instability that comes with the physical reminders that this place was settled, but not conquered. There are still treaties, there are still Native people, there are still voices and there are still warriors and we are still here and we are not going anywhere. Settler colonialism is tenuous and the shaky, weak premise that "occupation," "invasion" and "discovery" is enough foundation to erase, eradicate and rightfully claim this place isn't as "settled" as people thought. This can be jarring for some ("wait, why are we talking about this?"). It can be threatening for others ("I'll change the name back, when I'm President." HA HA... when you're President dude... sure). But guess what, it's happening.
I am drawn to this idea that words can change the world. In the case of Mount Denali, it's true. Now we will look at a map of the world and it will say "Mount Denali." As it should.
PS. Here is a video of President Obama dancing with some Native Alaskan kids doing a Native Alaskan dance. And it is the best thing on the internet right now.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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