A Lot to Ask of a Name

White spaces and Indian symbols

Vance Lump

I start with Chepenafa Springs. I am standing in front of a sandbox full of community toys. I can see two commercial play structures in green, red, and yellow, surrounded by carefully watered and trimmed crabgrass. We are well above much of the city here, but the abundant trees outlining the park obscure my view. Chepenafa Springs is a city-owned park along the relatively well-to-do northern edge of Corvallis. Looking through historic city council minutes, I find that the name was intentionally, although rather casually, chosen to acknowledge the Chepenafa, who are more colloquially called the Marys River Band of Kalapuya, whose territory centered on the confluence of the Marys and Willamette Rivers, precisely where Corvallis was founded in the 1840s (incorporated 1857). I desperately wish there more to the choice of this name for this place, this park high above the town where I live. Nothing at the park explains this name: Chepenafa Springs. No placard. No guide for those of us unable to locate or place that term. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for names that overturn settler colonial space, names that take Native people seriously as current and ongoing stewards of these lands. I actively advocate for such names when they can potentially work against dispossession or the profit-driven and human-centric transformations of indigenous lands; when they are proposed by tribal communities; when they signal a more substantive relationship or purpose. 

The name of this park rises above the abysmal standard American use of Indianness in place-naming. Until recently, names that were not historic carry-overs from tribal languages rarely found their way to local places. To be sure, the United States has lots of place-names derived from or carried over from Native American languages: Massachusetts, Walla Walla, Tahoe, Willamette. How else would sober colonial English turn toward the singsong spelling of M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I!? We usually learn in high school that Oklahoma translates to “red people,” which is made to seem logical, even natural, as if that tornado-prone land were just waiting for all the indigenous people of the Americas to gather together tightly enough to allow for history’s leading white protagonists to take the stage.

By 1859, the federal government had removed the “Chepenafa” and all of the other Native people in the surrounding areas to the newly established Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations, making space for historical protagonists. With this in mind, I look around from my vantage point overlooking the town and wonder: What kind of work can this park’s name do (or undo) in relation to that legacy? I am mostly skeptical that there is any real expectation of work, besides a nod toward inclusion. It is rhetorical multiculturalism. I acknowledge that it’s a lot to ask of a name, of a park where people go to enjoy themselves and reduce or escape the stresses of their daily lives. But why else give the park this name except to make a statement, to concretely proclaim a set of values regarding the indigenous peoples of this land? 

Despite the history of conquest, genocide, and assimilation aimed at destroying Native peoples and wrenching Native lands away from tribal control, the symbol of the Indian is regularly used to help white Americans negotiate their identities and create a sense of belonging on this continent. Native American (Dakota) scholar Philip Deloria notes that white Americans have long engaged this concept of Indians-as-symbols as an attempt to resolve tensions in national, collective, and individual identities. Since the faux Mohawks of the Boston Tea Party—which he points to as a symbolic moment of national birth rooted in “playing Indian”—appropriations of Indianness have remained culturally powerful and even marketable tools for crafting white identity and a framework for nationhood. 

 

Before a trip to the local bowling alley in Tualatin to meet with a colleague, I notice how the town is formed of neatly ordered and largely abstracted residential enclaves and parks. Curious, I look up the town’s name. One source notes that Tualatin comes from an unidentified and thus abstracted “Indian word impossibly translating to anything from lazy to sluggish to treeless plain to forks to the name of the local Kalapuya band, the Atfalati.” The street names here are likewise abstractions of Native peoples. Standing on a street corner, I look up and see “Sioux Court” on a green-and-white sign embellished with the town’s vaguely tribal-inspired T logo. I see Apache Drive. Cheyenne Way. Iroquois Drive. Piute Court. Chinook Street. All bunched together. All out of context. All the same neatly organized Indian names. Just like in the neighborhoods of Clairemont Mesa, California, and Ahwatukee, Arizona. Just like Cherokee Village, Arkansas. Just like Medford Lakes, New Jersey. And so on. All of these towns have a Cheyenne Avenue, Drive, Trail, or Way. They all have Sioux and Iroquois. Apache, Chinook, and Piute/Paiute. Three of them host streets named Tonto, either referencing the so-called Tonto Apache or the most famous fictional Indian of all. At least that fiction would be honest, up front. 

As early as 1900, American city planners have been creating street names using Indian themes like these. In that year, Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood changed the names of a series of numbered streets—Twenty-Seventh, Twenty-Ninth, Thirtieth, Thirty-Third, and Thirty-Fifth—to Shawnee, Navajo, Seminole, Huron, and Cherokee. In 1912, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company created out of whole cloth a notable cluster of Indian-themed streets. This cluster is made up of every street in the agricultural town of Satanta, Kansas, and epitomizes the more intentional, comprehensive, and market-interested Indian-themed sign systems that became widespread between the 1950s and 1980s. 

The Indian-themed street name phenomenon marks the intersection of a moment of concentrated residential construction—the “housing boom”—with the national pastime of appropriating Indianness. Consider Cherokee Village, Arkansas, founded in 1954. Since its origin, this recreational and retirement community has grown to encompass fifteen thousand acres, wherein all the lakes, parks, and community structures draw on the Indian theme. Residents traverse no fewer than 150 individually named streets, each of which draws on a unique combination of abstracted or Cherokee-inspired names, such as War Eagle, Cochiti, Blackfoot, Sequoyah Ridge, and Tahlequah. In 1956, the developers of a new residential area of South Lake Tahoe decided on Apache and Hopi Avenues as two of their earliest street names. On their way to producing another of the largest Indian-themed clusters in the nation, the builders added locally relevant names to the growing roster of streets, like Piute and Washoe in 1958, and then more nationally scaled names like Kiowa and Seneca in 1961. By 1969, all or most of the one-hundred-plus current streets were in place, with residential plots strategically available for the impending real estate and population growth. What else do these and similar places have in common? At the time of their construction, they were undeniably white spaces. They largely remain so. White space. Indian symbols. 

The relatively narrow time frame during which such white residential spaces were built captures a period of conscious and intentional effort by developers and marketers to represent Indianness as a key component of their economically driven projects. The projects provided a mode by which Americans could use Native ghosts to help narrate a newly designed landscape. Symbols of the Indian worked to craft attractive new domestic spaces, places for American inhabitation. Somehow, actual Native people never figured into the conversation. Building on a long and successful tradition of commercialized Indianness and product-branding techniques, builders clearly understood that Indian themes were marketable to would-be homeowners: They indirectly referenced nature. They offered romantic mythologies. They were “native” to the land of this nation. They were original. They conferred history and tradition to newly made residential spaces that had neither.

It is fascinating that mid- to late-twentieth-century developers with substantial commercial interests consciously tagged residential streets across the nation with names like Apache, Cherokee, and Tomahawk, and then packaged these names together into thematic spaces that abstracted Native American cultures, geographies, and histories—and such promotions found a receptive market. People bought the houses, which they may have hesitated about doing if the streets had been named Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez. These home owners participated in more or less active ways in using these articulations of Indianness in one of the most intimate parts of their daily lives.

Our indigenous hosts have for too long kindly reminded us of their histories, their spaces, their continued presence. We continually (and perhaps willfully) forget. We feign wakefulness in regular, seemingly scheduled, increments, then forget again. Beyond parks and street names, we turn away from decolonial commitments, away from confronting whiteness, and away from tempering the precise and racialized vulnerabilities embedded within unchecked individualism. 

Oregon is good at this too. When Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, critics lampooned him and his group for their claims to federally held public land. If public lands were ever going to be handed over, critics argued, the displaced Burns Paiute tribe would have a much more compelling claim than the Bundy group. While a powerful counterargument to the occupiers’ claims, it seemed disingenuous, a rhetorical tactic. After all, Paiute tribal council members themselves had made this argument at their press conference the same year, when they restated their ongoing claims to that same land—claims that have been repeatedly dismissed. Indeed, once the Malheur occupation ended, the status quo was restored, and public discussion of Burns Paiute land claims went silent once again. We are all guilty of this kind of dismissal, this return to a colonial normal. This is the nervously laughed-off but ongoing legacy of the state’s whiteness. 

Our current society continues to feign reconciliation through meaningless symbols. There are plenty of other cases from our state, but this is not unique to Oregon—it’s an empty gesture that’s nationally ubiquitous. The abstracted figure of the Indian is used everywhere and is well-worn. We focus on this figure on signs and public markers in the interests of geography and the creation of space, although we could easily look at mascots, film, law, and much more. 

The problem is large, yet there are some easy starting points. As with many wrongs, addressing it begins with acknowledgment. Recently, the US Department of Arts and Culture—not an official government agency but a grassroots organization—created a guide to honoring Native lands. They outlined steps for moving beyond rhetorical multiculturalism and toward more grounded forms of change. If we continually forget, maybe the first step is to continually—and more precisely—recognize Native land. Say the words. Believe them. Listen to what we have already been told. Then we can better understand how to redefine and reshape space—to return. 

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thank you for writing this. I have never understood why places were named after Native American tribes and people, especially because few people actually know who these tribes and people were or are. I notice these names all over Oregon, yet I have yet to meet anyone from any tribe. Where are they? It seems that many people want to talk about them but nobody wants to talk to them. There is much I do not understand about this but your article helped me understand this just a little bit more.

Janet Warner | September 2018 | Corvallis, OR

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