A scholar at the University of Victoria says the restoration of Indigenous place names has intensified in recent years as part of the reconciliation process, but suggests more needs to be done.
“It opens the door to an initial conversation around places and the significance of places to Indigenous peoples,” said Jeff Corntassel, associate director of UVic’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement.
“So it is a necessary, but insufficient condition for reconciliation. It’s part of the truth telling that often precedes what might be called meaningful reconciliation and envisioning a shared future together.”
Corntassel, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said restoration of Indigenous place names represents a reclamation of place with broader implications.
“In a sense, it is a large statement of ‘we are still here,’” he said. “These other European names do not reflect our relationships, our intimate notions of place.”
The name restoration process has also helped to revitalize Indigenous languages, ceremonies and ultimately, a larger philosophy.
“Our Indigenous knowledge systems are located in place, so restoring these place names are also in a sense honouring our knowledge system and honouring our world views,” Corntassel said. “That goes way beyond symbolic.”
Toponymy (the study of place names) has generated growing interest in recent years, with several voices calling for greater recognition of Aboriginal place names.
Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have called for greater recognition of pre-colonization Aboriginal place names.
Notable examples in B.C. include the renaming to Haida Gwaii of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the use of Salish Sea for the waters of Juan de Fuca and Georgia straits, and on the Peninsula, the renaming of Dean Park to include its traditional Aboriginal name, LAU,WELNEW.
Corntassel acknowledged criticism of and resistance to this process.
For example, he has heard concerns that drivers could get lost due to unfamiliar Indigenous road names. Elsewhere, the default signage of local landmarks still reflects colonial naming practices, he said.
“I think people view landmarks as something they can identify with and they are not prone to change those. So there is a real resistance to shifting that narrative. So really what we are talking about is the messy process of decolonizing people’s thinking.”
This restoration has unfolded against larger changes, which have seen entire First Nations and Aboriginal individuals reclaim their traditional names, the long overdue discarding of racist nicknames in professional sports, and ongoing, long-running disputes over access to natural resources.
“All these things speak to the larger efforts of Indigenous peoples to re-assert their self-determining authority,” Corntassel said.
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