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This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine included the publication of a letter sent to the Campus Planning Board at the University of Colorado-Boulder in November of last year.

The letter pertained to two dormitories on the campus that were due to be renamed.  The Board had proposed renaming the dorms after two prominent historic chiefs of the Arapaho nation, the original owners of the land on which the University sits.  The two chiefs in question are commonly referred to in the modern day as Niwot and Little Raven.  However, members of the faculty of the Native Studies program at CU argued that it was “culturally chauvinist” to use these names instead of the names given to the chiefs in their native Hinono’ei, or Arapaho language.  In the Arapaho language, “Niwot” would properly be spelled Nowoo3, and “Little Raven” is just a direct translation of the Arapaho name Houussoo. In the case of “Niwot,” the chair of the linguistics department (one of the authors of the letter) argued that we would never think to name something after a French leader and insist on transliterating it into English spelling just because the spelling makes it confusing to pronounce – it would be like writing Sharl duh Gahl on something, which he said would look pretty stupid.  Similarly translating Houussoo into English is not something we typically do with European languages, or else we’d have things in DC named after Stone the Child instead of Pierre l’Enfant, for example (goodness, doesn’t that give you a different sense?)  The letter argued that such a naming policy further serves to “primitivize” native languages and native peoples.

This plea caused some controversy, of course.  Amongst quite a lot of accusations of “PC Police” and comments ranging from vaguely to wildly racist, there were some cogent counterpoints.  One argument I thought was particularly on point is that the Arapaho language, unlike the French of Charles de Gaulle or Pierre l’Enfant, did not have an orthography in the 1800s when these two chiefs were in power – that is, Chief Nowoo3 or Niwot or Na-wath (roughly the correct pronunciation) never saw his own name written down, so it is hard to say that Niwot is really a “misspelling.”  While that is true, the Arapaho language has developed a written form since then, and strong efforts are being made to document the language (in its specific, non-English orthography) and to revitalize it (see here, for example.)  Deliberately ignoring these efforts, and more importantly deliberately ignoring the spelling conventions of thousands of currently living members of the Arapaho tribes, does indeed strike me as being thoughtless at the very least.

The translation of Houussoo to “Little Raven” seems even more difficult to defend.  It’s hard to understand any objections to this point.  And in case you thought there was no harm in translating native North American names into English, I’ll give you my favorite example: a prominent leader of the Oglala Lakota in the 19th century had the Lakota name Tȟašúŋke Kȟokípȟapi, and is almost always referred to in American history books as Young Man Afraid of His Horses.  “Young Man” is a rough translation of the first name, and “Afraid of His Horses” is pretty close to the last name, but the overall impression is of a puny Plains Indian so wimpy he’s scared of his own horses.  A more accurate translation of the name is something like They-Fear-Even-His-Horses.  Now that sounds more like a strong military and diplomatic leader.  But his name, his real given name, is Tȟašúŋke Kȟokípȟapi.

I would argue that the one underlying objection to “Nowoo3 Hall” is just laziness, plain and simple.  I’m not immune to it – before I did some reading I was left scratching my head as to how in the world you would pronounce that.  We Anglophones, especially we American Anglophones, can be pretty lazy and resistant when it comes to learning how to pronounce anything in any other language (let alone learning another language.)  But is laziness a good enough reason for cultural insensitivity?  The CU faculty point out that other universities have named buildings after native leaders in native orthographies – the Muwekma-tah-Ruk residential hall at Stanford, the Kanonhsesne residential community at UMass Amherst, and the very loveliest example I’ve ever seen, the Xwi7xwa Library at the University of British Columbia (I’m still pondering the pronunciation of that one.)

Both of the CU residence halls were due for a renaming ceremony in April, but I’ve been poking around and I can’t find any news about what was decided, and the CU website still lists the halls under their old names (Kittredge Central and Kittredge West.)  What do you think they board should decide?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.