The changing of geographic names that some people find offensive is not about assuaging hurt feelings or erasing the past. It is about telling a more complete history of the United States and recognizing that the historical narrative often calls for revisions.
The latest example involves three place names in Washington. A state board has approved changes that remove a derogatory word for Native American women, altering the names of lakes in Kittitas and Chelan counties and a ridge in Okanogan County. Proposals for new names were submitted by local tribes.
The decision follows a process established by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2021 to review and replace derogatory names of geographic sites. It also continues efforts to examine how monikers reflect our nation’s values.
One example is a slow-but-steady movement to change the nicknames of athletic teams. The professional football team known for decades as the Redskins is now the Washington Commanders, reflecting the realization that focusing on skin color is not an appropriate way to “honor” Native Americans. Columbia River High School in 2021 changed its nickname from Chieftains to Rapids, after the issue was raised by a petition signing.
As Stephanie Fryberg, a professor at the University of Michigan, writes on the American Psychological Association website: “American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”
During a 2020 interview with The Columbian, she said: “What we find is that among Native people, about two-thirds of them are offended by Native mascots. We see decreased self-esteem, decreased community efficacy. For Native people, there are no benefits.”
Fryberg, who grew up on the Tulalip Reservation north of Seattle and earned a doctorate at Stanford University, has studied the issue for years. “This is the difference between intent and impact,” she said. “They may intend it as an honor, but the science doesn’t show that impact. It increases stereotypes of Native people being aggressive, primitive and savage.”
Whether or not that impact is reinforced by the name of a lake in Chelan County is unclear, but the point is that we can do better. How we honor our nation’s history and her people has a subtle but authentic impact on how we view our future.
A similar impact is created by the naming of military bases and the presence of Confederate statues. Fort Bragg, a U.S. Army installation in North Carolina, was recently renamed Fort Liberty, removing the name of a Confederate general. And numerous statues honoring the Confederacy throughout the South have been removed in recent years.
Honoring the Confederacy is particularly nonsensical. Those who fought against the United States pulled off a triple play of failure — defending slavery, endeavoring to kill Americans and losing the Civil War. They should be remembered, but not held in esteem, lest we desire to honor treasonous losers.
The naming of geographic places is different, and yet there are similarities. Using a racist trope from the past to identify, say, a ditch in Thurston County, is an offense that is beneath the ideals of our nation. And in removing that name, our country takes a small step toward the equality it professes to embrace.