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The Case For Re-Naming Public Lands

Racist names are part of our public land’s fraught history and contribute to inequality and erasure today.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Heads up—this article contains examples of racist slurs present on public lands. 

The John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, and is popular with trail runners and through-hikers alike. But, before it was named after the famous naturalist who was also an advocate for Indigenous removal. Muir called the original inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous”, and pushed for the valley’s inhabitants to be pushed from the soon-to-be-National Park’s Boundaries.  The JMT  was originally called Nüümü Poyo, “The Peoples’ Trail,” by the Paiute, Shoshone and other tribes that had used the artery for centuries. 

The names of numerous other trails, parks, national forests, wilderness areas and public features bear either racial slurs or are credited to Confederate soldiers, racists and frontier figures responsible for killing or dispossessing Indigenous people. As well, many public-lands places and features, if not most, were already named by Indigenous peoples long before European-Americans started re-naming them. Papering over the Indigenous names of peaks and places suggests that their original inhabitants, and their connection to and stewardship of the land were less important than the colonizers who came later. 

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Denali was referred to as Mount McKinley by settlers before President Obama officially reverted it back to its original name in 2015. The popular Colorado 14er, Longs Peak, is named for Major Steven Long, the first Anglo-European to spot the peak though Indigenous peoples who called the area home already had a name for it: Neníisótoyóú’u. Mount Belford, another 14,000-foot peak in the Colorado Rockies, was called Hiwoxuu Hookuhu’ee until it was renamed because it reminded settlers of the Colorado congressman James Belford’s vibrant personality

Recently the trail-running community or other outdoor groups have begun to reckon with the issue of racist names and renamed places and features. For example, the trail runners Lydia Jennings and Clare Gallagher have spoken out about the use of the word “squ*w” in reference to the Western States Endurance Run’s location and associated hashtag. The word is an extremely offensive term leveraged against Indigenous women, and ill-fitting for casual hashtag use or geographic nomenclature. It’s equivalent to the c or b words (the worst terms you can use to refer to a woman) and was frequently used by white settlers to demean Native women.  

The climbing community has also begun to address its troublesome history of offensive and racist route names. A willingness to understand the issues with racist names, names associated with racists and changing Indigenous names and update names of parks, trails, forests and peaks would make trail running, and the outdoors, more welcoming and safer for all people. Additionally, restoring Indigenous names conveys a powerful message about Indigenous’ peoples historical stewardship of these lands, and the fact that Indigenous activists and land managers continue to lead the way in restoration today. 

 

The Numbers

While collecting data that links racist names with a lack of racial representation in trail running and other outdoor recreation participation is challenging, these harmful names are a reminder of a painful past and unjust present. A 2015 survey found that 1,441 federally recognized places had names containing racial or other offensive language toward specific groups. Each state contains at least one place with a derogatory name, and the majority are in Western and Southern states. Commonly used names are “Negro,” “Uncle Tom” and “Jim Crow.” Derogatory names for Asian Americans and Indigenous people are also common. 

“Some names are so blatantly racist that their demeaning effects hopefully do not need much explanation. But others are subtler and contribute to erasure (the erasing of Indienous peoples from maps and history) by assuming that there were no names or maps before explorers and settlers came and re-named everything,” says trail runner Sarah Krakoff, a professor of law specializing in Natural Resources Law and Indian Law at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The assumption that there was a ‘blank space on the map’ to fill in is the very beginning of the problem.”

“The act of re-naming or ‘staking claim’ to land and space is based in actively erasing Indigenous cultures by replacing them with a new identity. This is why I try to refer to places in the way that is taught to me by the local Indigenous community when possible,” says Dinée Dorame, an Indigenous runner and host of the Grounded Podcast, which dives into topics connecting land and running. “I’m still unlearning the dominant historical narrative and some of the names of places I learned growing up in school, because white settlers are not the authority on our ancestral lands or traditional sites. Especially since so many places are still referred to by Indigenous people by their original names in our own languages today.”

The most frequent slur was the word referenced above. Squ*w appears in over 800 locations nationally, though many historians and experts consider it to be the most offensive term that can be used for Native American women. Seeing the name on maps, and saying it in conversation normalizes the slur and further perpetuates discrimination and equality. Add to that the fact that many such places include a violent history of Indigenous removal, and you have a troubling pattern of grafting racist language onto spaces that were home to Indigenous communities. 

In our communities, Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQIA+ relatives go missing and are murdered at high rates,” says Dorame. “We are facing an epidemic and as a Native woman, and to see place names that perpetuate the hyper-sexualization of us or play on the fetishization of Indigenous women only furthers this idea that we are not valued, that our lives are unimportant.” 

Many places used to and still do contain the n-word. For example, Negro Bar State Park, near Sacramento California, contained the offensive slur until 1941. There are many federally recognized public lands with the word “negro” in their names, particularly in the South. Though the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (the federal organization tasked with naming) removed all instances of the n-word in 1963, the word “negro” is a panful reminder that the past where National Parks and many public trails were segregated, is not so distant. 

In Trail Runner’s home state of Colorado, Mount Evans Wilderness and Mount Evans peak are named for John Evans, Colorado’s second territorial governor. Evans is known for creating and tasking a voluntary cavalry that committed the Sand Creek Massacre, in which at least 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children as well as elders, were brutally murdered. 

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What’s Next

In September, then New Mexico Representative and now Department of the Interior head Deb Haaland (the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet member) introduced the Reconciliation in Place Names Act. The proposed legislation would give a federal board more power to change offensive names to make the outdoors safer and more welcoming for people of color. The bill creates an advisory board tasked with making suggestions to Congress about renaming and revisiting potentially harmful names and would include tribal representatives and civil-rights leaders. 

Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order last summer that created an advisory board that would review and recommend name changes to public spaces and mountain peaks. The federal board has a list of 16 name change requests for Colorado alone, three of which are proposed changes for Mount Evans. For instance, a proposed name change for the mountain is Mount Soule, after Captian Silas S. Soule, who refused to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre. Other proposals include stripping Kit Carson’s name from the namesake peak, because he forced thousands of Navajo people to march almost 500 miles to a New Mexico internment camp. Almost half died along the way. 

I see the process of re-naming as being more about reclaiming and restoring historical narratives to the public consciousness,” says Dorame. “I urge non-Native people to educate themselves on what efforts may be happening to change things and how they can help remove racist mascots and names in their area.”

“Renaming these sites creates an opportunity to signal that our public lands are places that are welcoming to all communities,” says Krakoff.  “How might we rename a peak or a canyon, for example, to send a message of inclusiveness to Black and Brown hikers and visitors? What names might the Park Service adopt to recognize the ongoing and historic ties that Native American Tribes have to sites throughout our public lands?”

Some Indigenous outdoors people are pushing to use geotags on social media that represent the original indigenous names of places, or who the ancestral stewards of the land were rather than colonial names. Len Necefer, who has a Ph.D. in engineering and works for the Department of Energy’s Indian Energy and Policy Programs, founded Natives Outdoors , an outdoor media and apparel company that empowers Indigenous outdoorspeople through storytelling, Necefer has begun creating geotags that represent Indigenous names for peaks and uploading them to social media. 

Trail runners can support legislation and lawmakers who are working to bring a more nuanced and accurate understanding of what these names mean, and what it says about who’s welcome in parks and on trails. We can use hashtags and geotags that grant dignity and recognition to all people and histories, without white-washing stories away. History is a work in progress. We can start revising and moving forward together.