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Re-Naming as Decolonization


Re-Naming as Decolonization

Jessica Namakkal

There has been an important hashtag — #knowtheirnames — circulating through social media recently that encourages us all to say out loud and remember the names of those murdered by a white supremacist in Charleston on June 17, 2015.


Of course, “plantation-style” architecture will remain more saleable than “slave-labor-camp” style.


I vote to “rename” or, rather, restore the original name of the US to Turtle Island.


One of the residential colleges at Yale -Calhoun College-was named after our boy J C. It was one of the ‘new colleges’, built in 1936 If I’m remembering correctly. Oddly, this was not noticed in the days of the Freedom Rides, when I was at Yale. Its name has not been changed since then. Maybe some one will notice it now?


Out of curiousity one day and after having visiting Lake Louise and nothing the original First nations name for it of "Ho-Run-Num-Nay " or Lake of little fishes , I looked up some of the original First Nations names for places in Canada so as to see the origins and meaning of the same.

What struck me was so very few named after a single person. The names tended to be based on a geographical feature, a group or tribe of people or on some incident that had happened there in the past.

Naming a place after a single person , an ultimate vanity , seems to me to be another of those European customs and another means by which an individual claims his or her ownership of the same. Indeed this is how so many African Americans got their own family names. They too were once “property” and in being labeled as such were also diminished.


First, I would want to double check whether Mpls’ Lake Calhoun is named for John C Calhoun of SC. That seems a bit of a stretch. Why would Minnesotans of back then do that?

As for Ms. Namakkal’s broader question and urging, that seems not so important in America vs. elsewhere. Following independence from Great Britain the US, in reaction to Britain, named many things after Native American words. Most US States have Native American names, including North and South Dakota. Mpls. has Lake Nokomis, Lake Hiawatha and Minnehaha Creek. A main thoroughfare in St. Paul is named for Dakota Chief Wabasha. Most places in the American southwest and southeast had Spanish names, and those were not altered when America took over. There are even places in the south named for Liberator Simon Bolivar, and for Mexican Independence War heroes Victoria and Hidalgo.


To your general observation, I want to add a statement I saw in a guidebook to Greenland. The people who lived there were culturally primitive, meaning stone implements and illiterate. That statement was that the names of places in Greenland WERE the map. Places were named descriptively so that these hunter-gatherers could more easily recognize where they were and find their way.

Moving up a little in culture, when the Vikings settled Greenland many of THEIR names reflected who was living at such-and-so place at the time. It made sense. One viking asks another “I’m trying to go to Eirik’s place,” and the second answers “Go two fjords over and 5 coves in, you can’t miss it.” Sometimes the names changed when the who-lives-there changed, sometimes it didn’t.


I noticed the paragraph on renaming since the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Not mentioned is the rich history of renaming in that area. One round when the communists won, changing ‘Petrograd’ -> ‘Leningrad’, ‘Yekaterinburg’ -> ‘Sverdlovsk’; Overthrowing the aristocrats who had ruled and oppressed the Russians.

Then a wave of renamings after Stalin died, ‘Stalingrad’ -> ‘Volgagrad’ (Battlename not changed).

Then a wave of renamings after Communism fell, to scrub off the most recent set of oppressors.


Could you please define " culturally primitive"?

Culture and technology are not the same thing and because a group of people might have the technology to destroy the entirety of life on this planet using their Nuclear weapons it would not translate into being more culturally advanced than a tribe of people bunting in the jungles of Brazil with bows and arrows.

Calling a place Eric’s place rather than describing it as " the place under the tall mountain with the little lake" does not make those calling it Eric’s place more culturally advanced. It merely shows Eric stating he owns a place he had no hand in creating. It a vanity. If you call that being culturally advanced as opposed to primitive I would have to disagree.

I consider a people that can set aside ego and adopt some amount of humility as they reside in this wondrous place called Earth as more " culturally advanced"

An individual does not make a culture and " Eric’s Place" is elevating the individual over the place. A culture is defined as what a given people have in common and the concept of " private property" as defined by “Eric’s place” is in fact the very opposite of the commons.


I once lived on Taugwonk Rd. in Stonington Ct., which is not far from the Pequot Trail. If you take a right off the Pequot Trail, you wind up in Misquamicut. All over New England there are a mix of English names and Indian names.Personal names in English and most European languages are based on trade and location. A version of “Tom from Town” (de, di,von etc.), or Taylor, Smith, Cartwright and so on. I don’t know a lot abut African American last names, but many of them were derived from the name of the plantation owner (mostly Anglo-Irish), or from the plantation itself, or the area it was located in. There’s nothing as Irish as Barak O’ Bama.


That’s cool, it had never occurred to me to think about the cultural origins of the surname Obama. Looked it up and you’re right, it’s Irish.