Local tribes bristled at the naming, preferring to call the skeleton The Ancient One, or Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite, 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