Let's just rename everything

As you previously learned, Mt. McKinley is no more. Say hello to Denali. As the tallest point on the continent, it was a notable change considering that there’s probably nobody left alive on the planet who can recall it by its previous name. Even if you oppose the change, there is apparently nothing that can be done about it, at least for now. But it did leave me wondering if we’re entering a new era where politicians will use this as a new battle front in our electoral wars. Maybe we’ll just start renaming everything.

Katia Hetter wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post where she talked about the importance of retaining the place names assigned by indigenous tribes.

But many natural wonders still retain names chosen by people who came after the Native Americans. And there’s a loss of history when those traditional names are replaced, according to some experts.

“For traditional societies, place names were typically associated with histories and stories and mnemonic devices to aid those societies to find knowledge about anything, such as our environment or who we are as a society,” said Jay Johnson, a University of Kansas associate professor of geography, whose research focuses on indigenous peoples’ cultural survival.

When other people come in and change the names, “there’s certain loss of knowledge,” said Johnson. “The restoration of traditional place names is an acknowledgment of traditional society, an acknowledgment of their knowledge of the landscape and their history.”

She’s written a very nice essay on the subject and I can’t say I’m entirely unsympathetic to the point she’s trying to make. I mean, there’s a rather cold hearted counterargument to be made, of course, involving the fact that there are winners and losers in war and territorial expansion. To the victor goes the spoils and also the ability to name some things in your own language. But we live with many, many Native American named places all around us and it really doesn’t hurt anything.

But the author’s argument is in favor of traditions which span back for hundreds or thousands of years. Other folks are taking a somewhat more cynical view. (Fox News)

President Obama returning the name of the United States’ tallest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali has sparked a name-game feud, most recently Republicans under attack by an influential liberal PAC that is setting its sights on Ronald Reagan National Airport.

The group, CREDO Action, the political arm of San Francisco-based cellphone company Credo Mobile, is behind the effort with a petition drive.

“Tell John Boehner: Rename Ronald Reagan Airport,” the group writes on its webpage seeking petition signatures. “President Obama just took a small but important step for recognizing the history, culture, and human rights of America’s Native Americans when he decided to rename …. Mount McKinley in Alaska. But right-wing extremists in the Republican party, including House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, don’t see it that way.”

So a group of liberals want to score political points by getting Reagan International renamed back to Washington International, eh? I fly in and out of Reagan on a fairly regular basis and I don’t think I’d stop using it if they changed the name. But what’s the point? We’re not talking about changing the name back to the one traditionally used by the Powhatan tribe when they erected the first airport there in 700 AD. As for the name, I keep hearing people talking about making the Republicans “respect tradition” and change it back to Washington National Airport in honor of our nation’s first president. But was it? When you look at the history page for the facility you find that it was originally just called “National Airport” for quite a few years. Later they began calling it Washington National because there were many other national airports opening up around the country. In that regard, was it named after George Washington or just after the city it was located in? (Okay… I suppose the city was named after him so everything else there is also in a secondary fashion.)

Still, if this is the path we’re going down there’s a lot of petty sniping awaiting us on the horizon. If we run out of other stupid things for the two parties to fight about, they can just start renaming everything each time a new party takes control of the White House then we can change all the names again when they leave. Not all of them will be charitable, either. (Do you recall when San Francisco wanted to name a sewage plant after George W. Bush?)

This might be one case where we can stop the trend before it turns into a total farce. McKinley is now Denali and it will likely stay that way. But if we go into tit for tat mode this is going to get out of hand quickly.

Jazz Shaw Jul 06, 2022 9:01 AM ET