The tribal council of the Pueblo Santo Domingo in New Mexico recently decided unanimously to change the tribe’s name back to that by which they identified themselves for centuries. They are now officially known as the Kewa Pueblo.
This is as it should be – a giant step toward decolonization or decolonialization. It’s a step taken over recent years by the Sicangu Lakota, who had been known for so many years as the Rosebud Sioux; and those known as Pima are now Tohono O'Odham, the Desert people, as they called themselves from time immemorial. And the people of Winnebago are once again the HoChunk, and the Omaha have reclaimed the traditional spelling U-Mo'n-Ho'n.
We must ask ourselves, why was it that the Europeans especially wanted to change the tribal or clan names of the peoples they encountered in the New World, and on all other continents? Surely, it wasn’t just the inability of the European invaders to spell the names so the indigenous peoples and their landmarks could be recorded in their reports back home.
Why was the highest mountain on planet Earth renamed from its Tibetan name of Qomlangma to Mount Everest, after an obscure 19th Century Surveyor General of British colonial India? Or why was Denali Peak, which was named for the Athabascan people of Alaska renamed McKinley, after the 25th President of the United States? What does it signify to them? Conquest? Possession? Superiority?
Closer to home: why was the Lakota designation of Inyan Kaga changed to that of Harney Peak? It was, after all, General William S. Harney who led the punitive campaign of 1855 against the Sioux, which was in retribution for the Sioux annihilation of Lt. John Grattan and his troops. It was Grattan who provoked the attack by firing on the Lakota over the so-called Mormon cow incident. Harney’s most famous “battle” in that campaign was at Blue Water Creek which actually was a massacre that rivals Wounded Knee in its senseless brutality.
One historical account tells of treachery added to the brutality: “Harney concluded the more than 250 Brules and Oglalas camped on Blue Creek were the guilty parties. He divided his force and led his infantry towards the village. While Harney engaged in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder, the mounted troops had circled undetected to the north.
“The infantry opened fire with its new, long-range rifles and forced the Indians to flee toward the mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties. Eighty-six Indians were killed, seventy women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned.”
Inyan Kaga was the peak that Oglala holy man Black Elk referred to as the “center of the world,” and to rename it after such a man as Harney adds insult to the stealing of their sacred He Sapa, the Black Hills.
Perhaps we Lakota, at least, should begin calling that peak (the highest point east of the Rockies) Inyan Kaga again, and forget the name Harney Peak.
Although I find it difficult to envision the utopian state that the concept’s promoters seek in decolonization (or decolonialization), I think it’s a healthy exercise to take back our traditional place names, and, wherever it is appropriate, our real tribal names.
With the Sicangu Lakota, the name Rosebud was given to them to designate their tribal seat in the beautiful area of Rosebud Creek in South Central South Dakota. The Oglalas for many years were referred to as the Pine Ridge Sioux. Those tribes at Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, and Flandreau Santee still carry the geographic designation, although that appears to be justified in that each of those reservations is home to more than one tribal group.
Most of the reservation homelands were named to facilitate administration on the part of colonial overseers – the so-called Indian Office of the late 19th Century. The tribe or group of tribes adapted to those names to facilitate delivery of rations and annuities guaranteed under treaty.
However, the replacement of traditional names with new Anglo designations may also have been done as a step to break the tribal structure and disappear their people into the mythical melting pot as Manifest Destiny demanded.
To force Indian nations to take on an alien tribal name in English was cruel enough; but often the tribe had to take the name of the military outpost that was built to keep them in virtual bondage. Fort Sill Apache; Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux; and Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, are examples. Others had to adopt the name of the Christian church imposed on their village, such as Santa Ana, San Juan, San Ildefonso, and Santa Clara Pueblos.
There are some instances in which a Christian name was taken only to appease the Pastor to sanction an age-old ritual or event. Such was the case, I have been told, of San Geronimo Day at Taos Pueblo, which is held every September 30th, as I recall. The activities of the day, footraces, greased pole climbing, and feasting had been done for centuries before Christianity came along. They renamed the festival in order to placate the Church and continue the tradition uninterrupted.
Like the Sicangu at Rosebud and the Santo Domingo Pueblo, however, more and more tribal nations are reclaiming their true names – a reflection of growing confidence in their sovereignty. It’s something to celebrate and to encourage us all.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American
Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the
National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.
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