Story at a glance
- Researchers analyzed 2,241 place names in 16 national parks across the U.S. and developed “decision trees,” which enable them to group together place names with similar origins.
- The categories included language origin; derogatory; erasure; and dimensions of racism and colonialism.
- The study said each of the 16 parks contained at least one place name for figures who supported racist ideologies or profited from Indigenous colonization or genocide.
Researchers have developed a tool to identify and change place names in national parks that are deemed harmful or rooted in white supremacy.
“There’s a process by which those names are chosen,” said study co-author and Oregon State University associate professor Natchee Barnd. “And if we’re operating within a system that has been grounded in white supremacy, it’s probably going to reflect that — some really explicitly and vehemently, and some by default or accidentally, such as the fact that a name is in English.”
Barnd and his team analyzed 2,241 place names in 16 national parks across the U.S. and developed “decision trees” which enable them to group together place names with similar origins. The categories included language origin; derogatory; erasure; and dimensions of racism and colonialism.
They found 214 names that were appropriated without an Indigenous community’s consent, 254 names that memorialize colonialism and 21 names that commemorate historical figures with ties to racist ideas. The study said each of the 16 parks contained at least one place name for figures who supported racist ideologies or profited from Indigenous colonization or genocide.
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“One goal is to open up the conversation and getting to the place of saying that these names are not neutral; they are values being represented in some way,” Barnd added. “Maybe we find out that the name has this whole history we don’t know about. It’s about trying to find intention, to trace a lineage. But you have to use a scientific process to sort through these names.”
Barnd said the goal of the research was to open a dialogue about place name’s various histories. After conversations, harmful names might be replaced with consideration to traditional Indigenous history.
“There are places where we can do things differently,” Barnd said. “Names are part of how we create the world we live in and believe in and understand. They’re not just there; we’re creating that meaning, which is also creating the meaning of ourselves.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in November the agency will create a process to review and replace derogatory place names on federal lands.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” Haaland said at the time.
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