February 12, 2021 – Snap open a map and read the place names listed across the landscape. Those words—the place names on the map—are decided by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal agency created more than a century ago to standardize place names throughout the United States.
But the world outside is different from what you find on paper or a screen. Just think of how you describe places when talking to your friends and family: Turn at the cottonwood alongside the road. Let’s hike the trail where you saw the hummingbird last summer.
Here in New Mexico, and across the United States, Indigenous people have moved across these landscapes for millennia. And naming a place never meant claiming ownership.
Carrying names forward is a sign of connection, respect. A way to guide people from the past, through today, and into the future, explains the Pueblo of Acoma’s Theresa Pasqual.
“This connection is layered because of time, but it’s also complex because it connects us not just to the physical landscape that surrounds us but to everything that is associated within that landscape,” she says.
She describes how more than a decade ago, five southwestern tribes worked to protect Mount Taylor from new uranium mines. Each tribe has its own name for the mountain, its own stories and connections. The people of Acoma call the mountain Kaweshtima, and say it was created by two sisters who also gave life to plants and animals. The Diné call the mountain Tsoodził, and it marks one of the four directional boundaries of their spiritual world. To the Pueblo of Zuni, it is Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalannee; the Hopi Tribe, Tsiipiya; and the Pueblo of Laguna, Tsibina (or Tsipina or Tse-pi’na).
Together, the five tribes nominated 400,000 acres of the area as a traditional cultural property (TCP), a designation under both state and federal laws that would give tribes more of a say the decision-making process. In 2009, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee declared the area a permanent TCP—though mining companies, nearby private landowners and the Cebolleta Land Grant sued. Eventually, the New Mexico State Supreme Court upheld the tribal nomination as a TCP. (It also upheld a prior court ruling that Cebolleta Land Grant common lands could not be included within the TCP designation).
At the time of the nomination, Pasqual was director of the Acoma Pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office. She explains how the five tribes worked together—and how important it was to help state and federal officials understand not just the importance of the landscape, but how tribes perceive it.
“One elder explained to the U.S. Forest Service that in a sense it was almost as if there was a blanket spread out from the top [of the mountain,]” she says. “That this [sacred place] covered not just the peak of the mountain—many outsiders believe that the mountain was literally just its peak. But they began to understand that from a traditional perspective, it also encompassed the mesas and the valleys and the valley floor—and that that connection began to be as far as the eye could see, which is enormous, when you’re thinking from a perspective that forces you to define boundaries.”
Understanding a place means looking beyond a single point or dotted boundary line. Understanding a place means looking at a mountain—and seeing the mesas that swell from its hips, acknowledging the snows that fall and in the spring flow to gardens and orchards. And even, appreciating the water people drink and use in ceremonies downstream.
All of those things are connected. Even if we seem to forget that today.
Across our maps, there are also places with names that are racist. That make people feel unwelcome, like their stories don’t matter.
Last year, Rep. Deb Haaland and Texas Rep. Al Green introduced The Reconciliation in Place Names Act. As Haaland explains, public lands belong to all people—not just to one person or group of people.
“We felt very strongly that … all visitors to our public lands and our public spaces deserve to feel welcome and comfortable,” Haaland explained in early December. “And these offensive and racist place names, those are sort of relics of the past.”
She and Green feel it’s time to reconcile that. If passed, the bill would bring people from all different communities to make recommendations to the Board on Geographic Names. To make changes that are respectful of one another.
A report last year found hundreds of federally recognized places with racial slurs. Changing those names raises an important issue, Haaland says.
And like Mount Taylor—which is named for the 12th president of the United States—plenty of places bear the names of people who never loved or respected them, or the people living nearby. In Taylor’s case, he never even set eyes upon the mountain.
“When I was in college, I had a professor who used to say ‘You can tell a country by who their heroes are,’” Haaland says. “Who are our heroes? Are they folks who have stood up for underrepresented communities? Are they folks who have stood up and worked hard for vulnerable communities? Are they people who accomplished something that no one else could?”
Pasqual explains that when we move through landscapes, we create our own stories and memories. Those are all layered on the countless stories that came before.
“We carry a responsibility to know more about these places that surround us,” Pasqual says, “so that we can protect them, so that we can conserve them, and so that we can also give that gift to others and say ‘You know, there was a great place I hiked you know on such and such a day and this is its story, and I think you should go there.”
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), 1st Congressional District
Theresa Pasqual, Pueblo of Acoma