While reading the introduction of William Bright’s compilation of Native-derived names in the United States, “Native American Placenames of the United States”, I got to thinking about how biases can affect contemporary scholars’ thinking. I’m used to “John Q Public” being woefully ignorant of Native history and cultures, but I tend to expect a bit more from people who are scholars in fields relating to indigenous people. Yet, unexamined biases can creep in and affect people’s work.
Bright worked on many California languages (especially Karuk) and he was also interested in place names. From his own work, he knew Native people had extensive knowledge of their home country and surrounding areas, with many place names. But when he was doing research reading from other scholars, he came across some blind spots, where they were very dismissive of indigenous knowledge. A well known compiler of California placenames, Erwin Gudde, often dismissed indigenous origins of names. Gudde stated that the ‘original inhabitants had very few geographical names, and practically all these were descriptive’. One could chalk it up to the prejudices of those born at the turn of the last century. His prejudice was odd because he was aware of works like T. T. Waterman’s “Yurok Geography” – a work that listed 900 place names in Yurok country. In spite of that, Gudde seemingly put it out of his mind to hold to the prejudice that Indians just had a few descriptive place names, but were of no real importance.
The attitude persists even yet among some contemporary scholars. Leonard Ashley wrote in 1996 “What we think of as placenames may differ considerably from names Amerindians put upon the land. The red man [sic] considered himself a part of nature, not the master of it…The names he gave were more like descriptions: any large river might be ‘big river’…” It is amazing to me that a scholar would use the term ‘red man’ in a scholarly paper in 1996 (though this was published in a German book, so that may explain how that made it past editors), as is the dismissive attitude towards indigenous cultures and languages. As Bright noted, there are many English names that are ‘descriptive’ – Long Island, Grand Canyon, etc. It seems doubly ridiculous in that there are now many works for many different tribes cataloging the geographical knowledge.
Native names, like any other cultures’, are often a mix – some names are explicitly descriptive (especially those that come from agglutinative languages where small morphological elements are combined to create words – like Algonquian languages, Athabaskan, and Karuk) and some are just names, of no discernible etymology.
Compared to other regions of North America, relatively little has been published on western Oregon Indians. And there is a lot of bad information in print (things like “place of pines” as the name for Coos Bay or Cleawox meaning “paddle wood” come to mind).
So be careful not to take anything you read at face value. Compared to some tribes, relatively few Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw names got recorded. There is a dense concentration of names marking sites all along Coos Bay. At least several Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw names were recorded, and going through Harrington’s notes there are numerous Alsea names recorded along and near the Alsea River. That says to me that even though a fraction of names were recorded, this land was well known and the naming reflected that. It’s a shame so few people – even scholars who ought to know better – understand that.