Part one of the tale of indigenous names ended with the wonderment that the Devil figures so prominently in place names. It appears that Satan’s attraction extended to the Spanish colonizers as well as the English. Mount Diablo names both a mountain and a California state park in Contra Costa County near the San Francisco Bay Area. From the dawn of time, the Chochenyo-speaking Indians from Mission San Jose called the mountain Tuyshtak, meaning “at the dawn of time.”
Active volcano mountains contain potential infernos, but they do not necessarily have infernal names. The satanic names appear bestowed at random. In the case of Devils Tower, one story says the name originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Col. Richard Irving Dodge when his interpreter misinterpreted a conversation with an Indian.
While the tribe is not mentioned, I’m guessing the conversation to have been about the Bear spirit, since the Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota all relate the tower to Bear. The interpreter probably made the common European mistake of translating “spirit” as “god” and what he told Dodge was “Bad God’s Tower,” which Dodge duly wrote down as “the Indian name.”
It was a European naming convention to give the honor of choosing to the “discoverer.” The Arapaho people knew a peak in what is now Colorado as Heey-otoyoo’ meaning “Long Mountain,” before the 1806-1807 Zebulon Pike expedition. Pike attempted unsuccessfully to climb Heey-otoyoo’ but his name still got attached to Pikes Peak. Personally, Zebulons Peak sounds cooler if it must be named after a guy who could not climb it.
Often, the European with the opportunity to name will gift somebody else with geographic immortality.
Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascade Range and the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower 48. It’s also an active volcano that could make the Lawetlat’la eruption look like a middle school science project if it goes off. Rainier would be chucking more ice at more people than Lawetlat’la, known as Mt. St. Helens among the colonists, and so would logically be a prime candidate for some infernal name.
An Englishman named George Vancouver got the naming rights by sailing up the Pacific Coast in 1792 and seeing the snow-capped mountain with at least half a dozen tribal names. Vancouver has his name on an island and a city in Canada, a city in Washington, and two mountains, one in Alaska and one in Hawaii.
Not wishing to appear greedy, Vancouver named Mount St. Helens after the title held by Alleyne Fitzherbert, First Baron St. Helens. Better Lawetlat’la got named for Fitzherbert’s title rather than his real name. After naming other places Baker, Puget, and Hood, Vancouver named Mount Rainier after Admiral Peter Rainier because the Admiral was “my friend.” One of several indigenous names that almost stuck to what became Rainier was Mount Tacoma, because it was endorsed by the city of Tacoma. That name would have immortalized a Puyallup word translating to “Mother of Waters.”
It could have been worse. They could have named the highest peak in the Cascades, located in Washington, after the first President of the United States. Washington didn’t do that, but New Hampshire did. The highest peak in the Northeast is known to the Abenaki people, whose traditional lands straddle the Canadian border, as Agiocochook. I was not able to reach my Abenaki language source, but I’m sure there’s a less clunky way to render the name in English than “Home of the Great Spirit.”
Many indigenous names need shortening to be practical, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not approve names so long as to be “difficult or cumbersome to use in written or spoken form.” However, the Board’s written policy also “supports and promotes the official use of geographic names derived from Native American languages. I presume that policy helped Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Maine get approved, since the name comes from the Abenaki.
Besides length, people sometimes complain about difficult pronunciation of indigenous names. It’s right to be skeptical of complaints about pronunciation because lots of European languages attach to places in the United States that are difficult for English speakers.
Even more confusing are place names that have attached with a mispronunciation. The street that borders on the University of Texas campus in Austin is Guadalupe, but to make yourself understood, you must say it “GWAD-a-loop.” Ditto the city of Refugio, butchered by everybody into “Re-FUR-e-oh” or Buda pronounced “BYOU-dah” or Manor pronounced “MAY-nor.”
Butchering European languages by custom might make it appear indigenous languages, which often transliterate poorly in English, would have no chance. Not true. Some states that disprove this with just a look at the names on a state map are Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Oklahoma is particularly interesting because the tribal names, unlike in the other states mentioned, are not confined to any one region. This is not to claim that all indigenous names are easy.
The Grand Canyon, sacred to the Hopi under the name Ongtupqa and known to the Yavapai as Wi:ka?i:la has a wonderfully descriptive name in English. The first Europeans to see this feature were Spanish gold seekers who used the same descriptive name adopted in English by the National Park Service, Gran Cañón. Grand Canyon is also the name of a Navajo Tribal Park. The second most visited national park seems to have a consensus name.
So, too, the first most visited, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the mist rising off the mountains makes the name fit like a glove, and gu-li-se-tsi-yi might be a bit much for the Board on Geographic Names. The problem with Cherokee transliteration to English is that each character in the Cherokee Syllabary is one sound and so the characters are put together in strings that look weird in English. Some people keep those hyphens between sounds when writing Cherokee in English and some people lose them, but the Board on Geographic names does allow hyphens, having approved Winchester-on-the-Severn, Maryland.
Length is not a problem with some particular mountains Cherokees named. I cannot account for these decisions one by one, but, collectively, they suggest an astonishing disregard for the people who interacted with these mountains every day.
Duniskwalgunyi shows what you can do if you scrunch all those syllables together, and it means “Forked Antlers.” These formations became Chimney Tops. A trail that runs around Duniskwalgunyi was one of the oldest in the Smokies, and the earliest colonists called it Indian Gap Trail. Since the mountain has a rock summit, which is rare in the Smokies, the colonists decided the summit looked discolored by soot. In this case, the Indian and colonial names are dueling descriptions.
Tsituyi, “Rabbit Place,” somehow became Gregory Bald. Rabbit occupies the place in Cherokee lore Coyote occupies for Southwestern tribes, so it’s entirely possible the name might have been a comment on the terrain, but the Eastern Band people tell stories about a Great Rabbit who lives there, the leader of all rabbits in the world and so controller of a lot of trickery.
The colonial name honors a settler, Russell Gregory, who broke for the Union in the Civil War and was murdered by a Rebel sympathizer. “Bald” does not refer to Russell Gregory’s pate, but rather the grassy summit where most Smoky Mountain summits are forested.
Kuwahi, “Mulberry Place,” got named Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies and in Tennessee. The colonial name memorializes General Thomas Lanier Clingman of the Confederate States of America. His geographical immortality at the expense of a perfectly sensible Cherokee name is, I suppose, a reward for treason.
Other Native languages have the hyphen problem in English like Cherokee does. According to the National Park Service, the Indian name for the iconic vertical rock formation in the Yosemite Valley is variously transcribed as “To-to-kon oo-lah” or “To-tock-ah-noo-lah,” meaning “Chief.” That name was applied in very loose Spanish translation as El Capitan, now called affectionately “El Cap” by the climbers who flock to the challenge.
There is a vast marshland in what is now Florida that was once over 11,000 square miles and known to the Seminole residents as Pa-hay-Okee, “Grassy River.” While the Spanish were the first Europeans in the region, the modern name, Everglades, came from the first Englishmen to arrive. It’s worth noting that the Seminoles kept the Spanish, English, and United States at bay for many years, and many Seminoles escaped President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal to Indian Territory by hiding in Pa-hay-Okee. You would think Seminole perseverance earned naming rights.
This tour of a few geographical landmarks is offered to celebrate Denali getting its name back from a man who never laid eyes on the Great One. The final installment of this series inspired by Denali will examine the nations, states, provinces, and territories of North America. We would congratulate the Native Alaskans on the Great One’s homecoming except that for the people who live in its shadow, Denali never left.