Decolonizing Place Names

Spring Open
Class Standing
Zoltan Grossman

The power to name geographical places is elemental to how human beings make and remake places, and maintain or sever relationships to places and their stories. Changing place names is an integral part of the colonial process, to erase the presence of the original nations, and replace their stories and knowledge with colonial names. Reclaiming the power to name places is therefore an integral part of the decolonial process, and efforts to reindigenize the landscape.

The independence of the European imperial colonies and the disintegration of the Soviet Union included the wholesale reclaiming of place names, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Indigenous cultural revitalization has driven a more recent round of changes, particularly in settler colonies in the Pacific and North America, where (according to Keith Basso) the Native “place-maker’s main objective is to speak the past into being, to summon it with words and give it dramatic form, to produce experience by forging ancestral worlds…” We will study how cartography (mapping) has shaped the processes of both colonization and decolonization, and how Indigenous nations are using "countermapping" to delineate and reindigenize their lands.

Students will examine case studies of how Native nations have secured place name changes to reassert their presence within their original territories, eliminate derogatory names, and reverse (as Winona LaDuke observes) the naming of “large mountains after small men.”  Pacific Northwest case studies include Haida Gwaii, the Salish Sea, Olympia’s Squaxin Park, Evergreen’s Bushoowah-ahlee Point, and current tribal efforts to rename “Mount Rainier.”

In the United States, the authority to approve the names of natural features rests with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) and its constituent state committees. Students will research the USBGN administrative names policy, and complete sections of a mock application to change a Washington place name, and potentially help make a mark on official maps of our region. Readings, workshops, guest speakers, field trips, map interpretation, films, and plays will help inform the learning process.


Academic Details

Native and Indigenous Studies, Geography, Mapping, Global Studies, Tribal Relations, Cultural Education, Community Planning, Public Policy


$30 fee covers entrance fees for field trips

Students will research case studies of Indigenous place name changes, study the U.S. Board on Geographic Names administrative names policy, and complete sections of a mock application to change a Washington place name.


In Person (S)

See definition of Hybrid, Remote, and In-Person instruction

Schedule Details
LONGHOUSE 1007A - Workshop