You name it, you own it

Does this look like an indigenous American?

Does this look like an indigenous American?

When a 9200-year-old skeleton was uncovered along the Columbia River in 1996 scientists and journalists dubbed the ancestor Kennewick Man.

Local tribes bristled at the naming, preferring to call the skeleton The Ancient One, or, according to scholar David Hurst Thomas.

Thomas says naming is critical: “The power to name reflects an underlying power to control lands, Indigenous people, and histories,” he writes.

A few months ago scientists found a 12,000-year-old teenager in an underwater cave in the Yucatan and promptly named it.

But they eschewed an indigenous name and decided instead to give the native girl a Greek moniker for a water nymph: Naia.

Attempts—and successes–to name and own indigeneity seem inexplicable in today’s progressive era.

Sure: we can understand how the stroke of a pen at Ellis Island changed Wallechinsky to Wallace, and we accept that Native Americans are known as denizens of a South Asian country called India.

My relatives in South Dakota tell the story of their father, a Ho Chunk Indian (a tribe formerly known as Winnebago), who told his teacher—some 100 years ago–his name was blue wing: Ah-hoo-cho-ga.

The teacher wrote down “Artichoker.”

And when the French encountered my ancestors, they wrote Wah-Zha-Zhe in roman phonetics: Oi (wah). Sa (zha). Ge (zhe).

Osage. It stuck.

You’d think modern scientists would be a wee bit more mindful; that they would have enough respect to figure out an appropriate name for a 12,000-year-old indigenous girl rather than a name that refers to a Greek myth.

Painting of The Naiad by John William Waterhouse (1893) in the public domain


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, human origin, Indian, James Chatters, Kennewick Man, NAGPRA, Naia, native american, native press, Native Science, rhetoric, science, science communication and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to You name it, you own it

  1. B. Bartlett says:

    You write, “Attempts—and successes–to name and own indigeneity seem inexplicable in today’s progressive era.” Perhaps a partial explanation lies in the deep uncertainty, which you do not mention, as to whether the indigenous peoples who are also attempting to “name and own” various American continental remains are indeed of the lineage of the people represented by the remains. That uncertainty can be resolved only through scientific study, and facilities such as the Burke seem to be good places for that, regardless of “ownership.” And while your example of American remains being named after a Greek myth figure is persuasive to your point, it seems reasonable to name the remains found in Kennewick “Kennewick man” — an indigenous word for the place found. That fact that European settlers long ago adopted the indigenous name for the region should not disqualify that name; indeed, arguably it makes it a reasonable, neutral candidate for the name. Or, perhaps, as with asteroids, the profession should adopt a registry that assigns a numeric code to each site (numbers are not a “Western” invention, despite some uninformed noises made to the contrary).


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