What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
—Act II, Scene II
—Romeo and Juliet
Denali was Denali to Alaskan Natives and naming it for William McKinley by a gold prospector because McKinley supported the gold standard was a case of temporary insanity, no doubt common among white people exposed to the extreme weather of Alaska. Silly as the McKinley name was, it made me feel lucky to be born in what was Indian Territory until 1907, because we named not only natural features but counties and cities—and the names stuck.
Living in Indian Territory—renamed from the Choctaw language for “Red People” as Oklahoma—we are spared silliness like the second tallest peak in North America (after Denali) being called Mt. St. Elias instead of the Tlingit Yaas’éit’aa Shaa, which would be the proper name if proper means first rather than most powerful. I’ve been thinking about where the logic lies in St. Elias but have had no luck.
Elias is the Greek translation of Elijah, one of the greatest Jewish prophets, also recognized as a prophet by Christianity and Islam. The colonists, a superstitious and primitive lot, believe that Elijah is still living since, instead of dying, he ascended to the sky in a flaming chariot. Some would take that to be a rocket ship, I suppose, and if Albert Einstein was correct about time, we are aging more quickly than Elijah. But 3,000 years?
The only connection of the Jewish people to Alaska was the plan floated by the fellow who wrote the Bible of federal Indian law, Felix S. Cohen, to allow Jewish refugees from Hitler’s death camps to settle in Alaska. That plan came to nothing.
There are two St. Eliases, neither having set foot in Alaska.
The Roman Catholic St. Elias was an Egyptian who was canonized by the Pope for taking Rome’s side in an obscure theological dispute. Unlike many saints, he died of natural causes in the 6th Century.
The Orthodox St. Elias was also from Egypt, where he lived for 110 years, 80 of them in a cave.
If I had to place a bet on which of the three usurped the name of Yaas’éit’aa Shaa, I would put money on the Orthodox version, because Orthodox Christianity was the state religion of the first colonial power to infest Alaska, Russia.
The Tlingit name, Yaas’éit’aa Shaa, is boringly descriptive, “mountain behind icy bay.” I suppose colonists might have trouble pronouncing Tlingit, but neither English nor Russian is a picnic for somebody not raised with the tongue. The Native name could always be translated and perhaps shortened a bit and retain some authenticity.
The mountain they call St. Elias is one of the crown jewels of the largest national park within the U.S. system, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, about the size of six Yellowstones, but lacking the fame of Yellowstone because it’s in Alaska.
The National Park Service description of the park makes it clear that Yaas’éit’aa Shaa and Denali were not the only Native names discarded by the colonists unless you think Blackburn, Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell are Native Alaskan names.
You were thinking maybe Drum is an English translation of a Native Alaskan name? Wrong. The peak was named for General Richard Coulter Drum, known for his service in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and Indian fighting.
The First Sioux War was the 1855 expedition where Indian fighter William S. Harney perfected the slaughter of non-combatants that would remain a hallmark of Army tactics against the Great Sioux Nation until the photographs of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 turned public opinion.
Spotted Tail made much of his legend in the early part of Harney’s Blue Water Creek engagement. Wounded four times—two gunshots and two saber cuts—the Brulé warrior gave up his horse to a family that needed means to escape and returned to the fight. After the fight ended, Harney’s troops descended on the women and children in Little Thunder’s village.
Some Indians remember Drum, a lieutenant at the time of the First Sioux War, in a positive light for rescuing Spotted Tail’s daughter from the massacre of non-combatants. While she eventually died of her wounds, Drum is remembered for protecting her at a time when he did not know she was an important man’s daughter.
The history of a man whose name wound up on an Alaskan mountain brings us to the Great Sioux Nation, where the United States disregarded treaty rights to take possession of the mountains white people call the Black Hills. Indians generally do not object to this name because it is a direct translation of the Lakota name, Pahá Sápa.
Indians do object to their dispossession, which has been found unlawful in the colonial courts, and to the fact that the tallest peak in the Black Hills has lost the Lakota name Hinhan Kaga and is called for the man responsible for murder of women and children, what civilized people call war crimes. The colonial government calls Hinhan Kaga “Harney Peak,” and it is located, fittingly enough, just outside Custer State Park.
Hinhan Kaga is famous among the Lakota as the place where Black Elk received his first vision and they have protested calling the sacred place for a genocidal maniac. The translation of the Lakota, “Making of Owls,” might ease the transition for non-Indians if somebody explained that many tribes associate an owl with impending death.
Elsewhere in Pahá Sápa is the place the Lakota call Six Grandfathers. South Dakota lawyer turned State Historian Doane Robinson is credited with or blamed for the plan to desecrate Six Grandfathers with the images of four colonial grandfathers—Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Robinson also engineered the theft of the name, according to a document that rests in the files of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The document, dated May 19, 1930, claimed that according to State Historian Robinson the mountain had no name before he named it for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer who worked for the Harney Peak Tin Mining Company (tin mining representing another desecration of Pahá Sápa). Some historian.
The American Indian Movement once advocated renaming what is now called Rushmore “Crazy Horse Mountain.” That has a nice ring to it. It is also only fair to note that Doane Robinson’s original concept for the carvings would have included Red Cloud. Don’t get too excited, because it also included George Armstrong Custer, who had a terrible record of killing women and children until he picked a fight with warriors at Greasy Grass.
The Wyoming side of Pahá Sápa contains a distinctive laccolith formation the Lakota call Mat?ó Thípila, the Arapaho call Wox Niiinon, the Crow call Daxpitcheeaasáao, and non-Natives call Devils Tower. (Naming conventions in the U.S. leave out possessive apostrophes.)
The Devil—head honcho Evil Spirit in European mythology adopted from the Middle East—has a lot of real estate named after him. Devil’s Peak is the scenic backdrop in most photos of Capetown, South Africa, and the Devil owns a couple of other famous peaks in Australia and Hong Kong, all former British colonies.
The Devils Tower in Pahá Sápa is the site of contemporary sacred ceremonies and it seems odd to consecrate sacred space to the Devil. Arvol Looking Horse has filed a petition to change the name back to the Lakota name translated to English: Bear Lodge. Looking Horse’s petition has the support of the Oglala and the vigorous opposition of Wyoming and local officials. A similar proposal died in 2005. The Wyoming Congresswoman at the time, Barbara Cubin, represented the colonial point of view when she commented “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”
With all due respect to the former Congresswoman, would people suddenly be unable to find the peak immortalized in mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it’s taken away from the Devil and given back to Bear?
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is required to allow for public comment and that comment period is about to close. Looking Horse objects to the current name because, among other reasons, the identification with European superstition makes ceremonies on Bear Lodge appear to be “Devil worship,” and nothing could be farther from the truth.
In the next part of this series, we will look at other places where irrational colonial names have usurped traditional tribal names. There is no way to point out all of them. Still, if we had to pick names to change back, sites that are currently related to sacred ceremonies should go to the front of the line. At the very least, a sacred site seems an odd place for the colonists to give the Devil his due. Maybe it’s time for Bearto have his?