Visitors at Joshua Tree National Park. Image source: National Park Service / Alessandra Puig-Santana

By Bonnie M. McGill, Stephanie B. Borrelle, Grace C. Wu, Kurt E. Ingeman, Jonathan Berenguer Uhuad Koch and Natchee B. Barnd

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Language is perhaps the most important means by which humans pass on knowledge, history and values through generations. Naming places is an important aspect of creating and passing on historical knowledge. Place names tell a version of history shaped by those doing the naming. Around the world, statues of historical figures who symbolize colonialism and white supremacy have been called into question and often removed. But place names that elevate settler colonial history and ignore the histories of marginalized peoples are like statues and monuments hidden in plain sight.

US national parks are tied to citizens’ sense of national heritage and identity. The parks have been called “America’s best idea”. However, many in the public are unaware that the establishment of these “wilderness” parks relied on, in many cases, the violent removal of Native Americans. Place names likely play a role in hiding this history from the parks’ millions of annual visitors. In this study, we examined patterns in place name meanings and origins in a subset of US national parks. We found that racism showed up in a variety of ways in place names that are, for example, racial slurs, erase Indigenous presence, or commemorate a person who committed acts of physical violence against a racial group (often anti-Indigenous massacres).

Returning traditional Indigenous place names to US landscapes, under the leadership of Indigenous communities, is a step toward Indigenous justice and self-determination. One way ecologists can begin to decolonize our practice is to question place names, learn the histories of the places we work, and build authentic collaborations with the Indigenous peoples who identify with these places.