Restoring original place names

This Account is Reclaiming the Indigenous Names for Mountains One Geotag at a Time: A Navajo climber is leading a social media campaign to spread awareness of the indigenous names of peaks

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park gives a view of Neníisótoyóú’u (Longs Peak) in Colorado, left of center. 

From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters, Americans are proud of the natural beauty found in this country. But many of the names popular landmarks have today are not their first monikers. 

Long before Europeans arrived, Native Americans’ appreciated and named the U.S.’s peaks, valleys, rivers and plains. Now, with a little help from a feature found in Facebook and Instagram, one man is spreading awareness of these indigenous names.

As Cameron Fenton for Outside reports, the project started a few months ago with an instagram post. Len Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation and founder of Natives Outdoors, a purveyor of outdoor activewear and gear designed by indigenous people that also supports diversity in the outdoor industry and projects run by Native people, organizations and tribe, uploaded a photo on the company’s Instagram account of the Longs Peak, a well-known mountain in Colorado. But instead of the geotagging it “Longs Peak,” he gave it the Arapaho name: ”Neníisótoyóú’u.”

Facebook’s check-in feature allows users to create and name new locations. The social networking site’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram means that its geotags also transfer to the photo-sharing platform. Necefer tells Outside that he was inspired to create indigenous geotags after summiting four mountains sacred to the Navajo Nation. “I wanted to share the photos and thought I would love to share them with the indigenous place names,” he says. “When I couldn’t find them, I decided to create them.”

Since then, Necefer has created about 40 place names for mountains in Colorado and nearby. His work has already inspired another Instagram account, @IndigenousGeotags, run by Joseph Whitson, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota who is not Native. “Remember that public land is Native Land,” the account’s summary urges.

Beyond the realm of social media, efforts like the official renaming of Denali are also working to bring awareness of indigenous place names in the U.S. And of course many names don’t need to be changed to remind people of the history of indigenous people in the Americas. All that is needed is recognition that many place names familiar to the average person are in fact indigenous names. As Doug Herman reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2015Massachusetts is Algonquin for “Great Hill,” Chicago means “Wild Garlic” in the language of the Miami people, who are indigenous to the Great Lakes. In Canada, nearly 30,000 official place names have roots in indigenous names, according to the country’s Department of Nature Resources.

Recognizing and restoring indigenous names can be an important way to revitalize language, culture and history. During a 2015 conversation with Asaf Shalev of Anchorage Daily NewsAaron Leggett a Dena’ina historian says the efforts all boil down to awareness. The names, he tells Shalev, “remind people that not long ago, Anchorage was a Dena’ina fish camp and that the Dena’ina people are still here.” 

Blanca Peak from Ellingwood Point. SummitPost 

Many mountains around the world have been stripped of their indigenous names and some climbers are giving them back.

Top alpinist Colin Haley has long been a climber that’s argued mountains should be referred to by their indigenous names, not their colonialist ones.

“Often the knowledge of indigenous names has become lost or muddled by lack of written history and often the same mountain was referred to by different names by different tribes,” Haley said.

Many mountain names in North America have colonialist names that have nothing to do with the geography or history of where it is. The names were merely given to peaks for political publicity, such as Mount McKinley.

Theodore Winthrop wrote in an 1862 article: “Kulshan, misnamed Mount Baker by the vulgar,… is an irregular, massive, mound-shaped peak, worthy to stand a white emblem of perpetual peace between us and our brother Britons.

“Its name I got from the Lummi tribe at its base, after I had dipped in their pot at a boiled-salmon feast. As to Baker, that name should be forgotten. Mountains should not be insulted by being named after undistinguished bipeds, nor by the prefix of Mt. Mt. Chimborazo, or Mt. Dhawalaghiri, seems as feeble as Mr. Julius Caesar, or Signor Dante.”

President Barack Obama officially changed the name of Mount McKinley to its indigenous name Denali in 2015.

But almost all other peaks with colonial names have not been officially changed. A few examples of indigenous names include: Sultana (AKA Mt. Foraker), Begguya (AKA Mt. Hunter), Tahoma (AKA Mt. Rainier), Dakobed (AKA Glacier Peak), Wy’east (AKA Mt. Hood), Pahto (AKA Mt. Adams), Loowit (AKA Mt. St. Helens) Kulshan, Nch’kay (AKA Mt. Garibaldi), Yuh-hai-has-kun (AKA Mt. Robson) and Cerro Chaltén (AKA Cerro Fitz Roy).

Haley points out that “it’s not easy to switch, and I catch myself all the time accidentally using the colonialist names, but I think it’s worth trying.”

Recently, a 29-year-old Navajo climber named Len Necefer started using social media to remind followers of the indigenous names of peaks.

Last year, he posted a photo of Monserrat A Matehuala standing on the summit of Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s best known 14ers.

The peak is very popular and instead of calling it Longs Peak, Necefer geotaged it as the peaks’ Arapaho name: Neníisótoyóú’u.

As reported, Necefer “earned his PhD in engineering from Carnegie Mellon and then began working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs.”

Last spring, Necefer founded Native Outdoors as an online campaign and it now makes clothing and works with larger brands to spread the message.

“The creation of the first national parks, like Yellowstone and Glacier, was predicated on the forced removal of indigenous populations from these areas,” saaid Necefer. “It created this myth that these are untouched wilderness areas.”

Necefer started to create new locations on Facebook and Instagram in 2017 after he climbed peaks in the Navajo Nation: Sisnaajini (Blanca Peak) in Colorado; Dookʼoʼoosłííd, Nuvatukya’ovi, and Wi:munakwa (the San Francisco Peaks) in Arizona; Dibe Ntsaa (Hesperus Mountain) in Colorado; and Tsoodził (Mount Taylor) in New Mexico.

After he couldn’t find the indigenous place names, he created them. Last fall, he and a group of other climbers climbed Mount Belford in Colorado’s Collegiate Range and tagged the mountain as Hiwoxuu Hookuhu’ee.

“The more I researched, the more I learned that there were a lot of first ascents by Native people.”

Necefer has now given 40 mountains indigenous names on social media. Likewise, Joseph Whitson, a non-Native student at the University of Minnesota started @IndigenousGeotags on Instagram.

“I think Len’s work is incredibly important,” Whitson says. “Restoring names is a way of reclaiming not just the peaks, but all the cultural significance embedded in the names themselves.”

As pointed out: “That effort is occurring offline, too. In Minnesota, for example, lawmakers plan to rename Lake Calhoun to its Dakota name of Maka Ska. In Washington, a proposal to rename Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek, its Methow name, has gained widespread support from both Native and non-Native groups, including the U.S. Forest Service.”

Names in Canada have been changing from colonial to indigenous for year. In 1984, the province of Alberta changed the name of Mount Laurie west of Calgary to also include its Stoney Nakoda traditional name Iyamnathka, which means flat-surfaced rock or mountain. It’s better known as Yamnuska.

In Squamish, the popular climbing area the Squaw was renamed Slhanay, which is what the peaks is known by in the language of the Skwxwu7mesh people.

And for those who don’t know, “squaw” is a bastardized pronunciation and spelling of the Algonquin word iskwew (pronounced es-kway-ew), which simply means woman.

There are many other examples of mountains being renamed from colonial titles to their indigenous.

“Once people see the names, they get curious,” Necefer said. “It gives you just a little bit of information and can spark the interest in finding out more.”

Native American Climber Works to Restore Indigenous Names to Peaks
By Ryan Dunfee

The 14,351-foot summit of Colorado’s Blanca Peak erupts 7,000 vertical feet from the pancake-flat San Luis Valley to its west and gains its incredible altitude in just six miles. From any vantage point north, west or south, the peak and the surrounding Sierra Blanca Massif groan improbably upward from the sagebrush plains. The contrast is striking. You can watch the seasons change just by following Blanca’s ridges skyward until you see the high alpine blanketed with snow, which comes early in fall and stays late into summer.

For those looking to tackle all of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners,” the site of Blanca is invigorating. Its relief speaks to the challenges ahead. The climb starts with a knee-wobbling trek five miles up a viscous fire road to the shores of Lake Como, where climbers camp for the night.

The next day, the remaining five miles to the summit are made up of a quick gain to the treeless alpine, a traverse through a glacial cirque underneath Blanca Peak, and then a final mile up to the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood Point and the steep, exposed north ridge to the peak. Once atop, the prominence of Blanca’s summit affords outstanding views in every direction.

Those who make the climb up Blanca Peak know that it’s an incredible mountain. But for Len Necefer, CEO of Natives Outdoors and an obsessed Navajo climber who has summited Blanca six times, there is more to tell beyond the visceral physical experience. In the Diné language, the peak is called Sisnaajini, and it marks the eastern boundary of the traditional Navajo Nation—the place where the sun rises to begin the day. Sisnaajini features in several Navajo songs that tell the chapters of the nation’s history, and when Necefer climbs it, he is thinking not only about its incredible granite.

He also reveres it for the sacred place that it is, and wonders what the standard route to the summit was for his ancestors 10,000 years ago. A swath of private land on the peak’s south side no doubt altered the prehistoric approach. Necefer also sometimes thinks about the 1874 Wheeler Survey, which claimed a first “recorded” ascent of Blanca despite finding a manmade rock structure on the peak—plain evidence of earlier climbers, likely Ute or Navajo.

But since the American education system does a terrible job of covering the pre-Colombian history of the United States, this added perspective on Sisnaajini—even the idea that it has another name to begin with—is lost for most non–Native American adventurers. To try to remediate this ignorance, Necefer started playing around with a very simple, nonintrusive tool to pique interest about the indigenous history of the outdoor places many of us love: geotags on Instagram and Facebook.

By providing outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to rename places with their Native American words—Mukuntuweap for Zion Canyon, or Babad Do’ag for Arizona’s Mount Lemmon, for example—Necefer hopes to encourage those who already have a deep connection to a natural place to investigate that peak or landscape’s indigenous significance and history. Along with partners like Joseph Whitson and his Indigenous Geotags, Necefer is trying to promote a deeper connection to landscapes and the passion to protect those places.

While Necefer doesn’t expect that the European names of cherished outdoor places will be swapped out for their indigenous ones, he does hope that a greater understanding of the Native American histories of these places—places they have cherished, recreated on, and managed sustainably for hundreds or thousands of years—will increase public appreciation for them. And maybe even spur some people to respect those places more.

“It’s not respectful to go climb a church,” Necefer says. “That’s a mainstream cultural norm. But the idea of respecting native sacred spaces in the same way is a pretty new discussion, at least on a national level.” Necefer believes, for instance, that the campers at Lake Como who left the pile of trash that he stumbled across during his first visit to Blanca would have paused before doing so if there was any information to let them know it was a sacred Navajo site.

As Necefer has sought to increase awareness of Native American history, he has had to reconcile his own passion for outdoor recreation with what he initially perceived as restrictions surrounding how indigenous sacred sites “should” be respected.

“The first time I went to climb Blanca, I was pretty nervous,” Necefer says. “I was worried about how I would be perceived in my community and in my family. But after chatting it over with them, it wasn’t a problem—they just told me to be reverent of the place, and to behave myself.”

Ultimately, he has come to the conclusion that outdoor recreation in sacred places is appropriate as long as a spirit of reverence accompanies it. “Some, but not all, native peoples think [these peaks] are too sacred to go to the top,” he says. “But I think it’s really important [to go to the top] because a lot of Navajo folks don’t have the means to come and access these mountains and experiences, and it’s great to share what it looks like up top, and get to know it, and impart that knowledge on others and share how fantastically beautiful [these places] are, to inspire others—and not just natives—to protect these places.”

For Necefer, a visceral, intimate appreciation for place is the common ground on which all other appreciations are built.

Necefer points to the fraught history of Wyoming’s Devils Tower National Monument as an example of how adventure can coexist with reverence. The monolith of stone is a sacred site for Northern Plains Indians, including the Lakota, Dakota and Cheyenne, who call the place “Bear’s Lodge.”

In the 1990s, a coalition of native nations asked for a voluntary ban on climbing the tower’s renowned cracks in June, out of respect for the tribal ceremonies that take place at its base in mid-summer.Afterward, the number of climbers attempting the tower’s routes fell from a monthly average of 1,200 to less than 200. “Provided the information, the majority of people will make appropriate decisions,” Necefer says. (There is currently an effort under way to formally rename the tower Bear’s Lodge, though it has met resistance from state and local politicians worried about the impact on tourism.)

The years-long campaign to establish Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah offers another example of how western ideas about conservation can combine with Native American traditions about sacred sites and land management. The effort to establish Bears Ears brought together five Native American nations that didn’t always see eye-to-eye, and at the same time created new alliances between those nations and the outdoor recreation industry and conservation groups like the Sierra Club.

These sometimes insular communities teamed up to advocate for the national monument’s establishment for both its cultural and outdoor recreational values. That alliance succeeded in avoiding the flawed conservation view of the area as a pristine “wilderness” free of people—an idea that can do great harm to indigenous communities by negating their history and connection to the land, along with their generations-long sustainable management of landscapes.

For Necefer, the Bears Ears campaign was an important milestone, even though the monument is now under attack by the Trump administration. The cooperation between indigenous tribes, outdoor recreation companies and conservation groups is exactly the kind of bridge building he is trying to promote with Natives Outdoors.

Public lands is a gateway of talking about these other issues facing native peoples in the U.S.,” Necefer said. “And there’s more of a willingness in the outdoor community to go there because of that shared outdoor experience.”

But ultimately, Necefer isn’t hoping for the history of one culture or the other to get prioritized, but that our experience outdoors is further enriched with the knowledge of how our favorite places are cherished in a variety of ways. “It’s a cultural shift in how we need to talk about mountains or places, but it doesn’t need to be a confrontational conversation. How do we make these places inclusive of the history we all share every time we go?”

Delegation of North American Indigenous Leaders and Activists Visit Sacred Headwaters


delegationPress conference with members of the delegation in Quito, Ecuador.

In late February, Pachamama Alliance Co-founder Bill Twist joined with a delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental activists from Canada and the United States to travel to Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest region. The delegation was organized by Pachamama Alliance and Amazon Watch to bring this delegation’s experience and ideas and possible partnership to the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Project.

The Sacred Headwaters Project’s goal is to secure permanent protection of the headwaters region of the Amazon river-basin, approximately 60 million acres in Ecuador and Peru. The project is coordinated by Pachamama Alliance, Amazon Watch, and CONFENIAE, the governing federation for Ecuador’s Amazonian indigenous people.

The delegation spent five days visiting the indigenous communities of the Sacred Headwaters region, seeing both areas damaged by oil development and pristine primary rainforests where the communities are fiercely committed to preventing any incursions of oil or other extractive activities.

North-South Alliances

The delegation members represented many years of experience in successfully securing protection for the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada, nearly 20 million acres of temperate rainforest on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia. And so, in addition to cultural exchanges, there were many conversations—through extended three-language, back-and-forth translations—about the shared challenges indigenous people face in the North and the South, about the Eagle and Condor prophecy, and the importance of building North-South alliances among indigenous peoples.

The indigenous communities in Ecuador have been actively challenging the Ecuadorian government’s proposed oil and mining activities in indigenous territories. The presence of the delegation and the emergence of a North-South alliance was an opportunity to demonstrate to the government the international visibility and importance of protecting the Sacred Headwaters region. To that end, the trip concluded with a press conference in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, that attracted the country’s main television and newspaper organizations and provided wide coverage to the general public.

Overall the trip was very successful and involved a whirlwind of activities—flights into the forest in small planes, river rides in motorized canoes, hikes in the forest, and many hours of conversation supplemented with ample amounts of a fermented manioc drink, chicha—the local beverage of choice. As a next step to the trip, the delegation is now exploring further forms of collaboration with the Sacred Headwaters Project—recruiting additional partners, researching ideas and innovations for protection, and raising long-term funding. We will keep you posted.

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