How Place Names Impact the Way We See Landscape

A highway in Arizona leads to a large, rocky cliffside. The signs on the highway read: "Exit 359, Grants Rd, 2 miles," and "Arizona Welcome Center Rest Area."

Image credit: Lupton, AZ. MARELBU, Creative Commons License

When we look at a familiar landscape, we automatically associate its features with the names that we’ve learned for them. What do those names mean? Are they personally meaningful to you? In this May 2022 essay from High Country News, Brian Oaster (they/them), investigative journalist and member of Choctaw Nation, argues that restoring meaningful Indigenous place names would carry a benefit for non-Natives and Native alike.

Read it here.


1. In addition to the harm that colonialist place names cause to the Indigenous people who inhabit them, Brian Oaster makes another argument for the retention of the older names. What is it? Summarize the argument. Is their argument persuasive? Why or why not?   

2. The images in this article, by Tony Abeyta, are very striking. Research online or in your school library to learn what you can about Abeyta and perhaps also the paintings that appear in this article. Why do you think Oaster may have chosen this artist and these images? What effect do the images have on the major points Oaster is making? What do they add to the argument—and what would be lost if they were omitted? 

3. LET’S TALK. What are some of the place names of natural elements (hills/mountains, bodies of water, forests, etc.) in your area? What about streets and parks? Work with a few classmates to identify important place names and do some research on their origins. Is the history of the name discoverable? Do any of the names predate European settlement? Are any of the names meaningful to the community-at-large? Do any of the names have important personal associations for you such as the ones reported by Laura Tohe? And most importantly, do you think you might feel more grounded in your community if its place names were more meaningful? Why or why not? Discuss your responses with a few classmates.  

4. AND NOW WRITE. Since virtually all of the landmass of the United States was populated by Indigenous people before the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous place names would have been abundant, and in many cases have survived, at least in approximations of their pronunciation. The names of nearly half of the fifty states, for example, have Indigenous origins, as well as the names of many cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and many more. Select two place names in your area that have origins in an Indigenous language, and research as much as you can about the history and meaning of the name. (Community organizations, a local historical society, or a local library might be good places to start.) Write a report about what you discover.  

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