December 12, 2007

What's in a Name?

A tip of the hat to Lorraine Collins of Spearfish, who has allowed us to use the following column, which originally appeared in the Black Hills Pioneer.
The recent discussion of whether Hooker Street in Whitewood should be renamed because of unsavory connotations for the term made me think of some other renaming events in our area over the last couple of decades. The first thing that came to mind was the renaming of an elementary school in Belle Fourche a number of years ago. One of the well known, respected, longtime businessmen in Belle Fourche was named Tom Gay. Mr. Gay owned property on the hill in the north part of town and he eventually donated land for a city park, which became Gay Park. When an elementary school was built there, it became Gay Park School.

As time went on and language changed, you can see how a certain uneasiness about the name developed. The school district finally decided to change the name of the school to North Park School. This did, after all, reflect its location and it balanced with the South Park School on the other end of town. But some local citizens were outraged that the name of an honorable man and benefactor was no longer acceptable in that town. Why let other people’s definition of a word take over a respected citizen’s name?

There was a different sort of controversy in Rapid City in the last decade or so, also involving the name of an elementary school, but not because of the change in our language. This was more about the change in the way we perceive our history. The school was named for Annie Tallent, who was “the first white woman in the Black Hills,” coming with the Gordon expedition in 1874. She taught school and was the first superintendent of schools in Pennington County. Annie Tallent also wrote a book called “The Black Hills or the Last Hunting Ground of the Dacotahs.” This is what eventually got her reputation in trouble. In that book, Annie, as a product of her times, had some quite harsh and bigoted things to say about Indians, referring to them as “savages.” She enthusiastically endorsed the prevailing view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

The question became, was it a good idea to have a school named for a woman who had such racist views? It was decided not, so the name of the school was changed. While I could understand that, I did wonder whether Annie Tallent was being judged more harshly than quite a few other early pioneers. Because she was a teacher, maybe she is held to a higher standard by historians than is, say, a general in the army. Streets, towns, mountains and counties around here are named for men who, if they did not defame Indians, often slaughtered them. We have the towns of Custer, Miles City, Sheridan, Sturgis, Camp Crook and Crook County in Wyoming. We have mountains named for Harney, Terry, Custer. Those who conquer the land get to name the landmarks.

General Joseph Hooker may not be as famous out here in the west as these other fellows, but in terms of naming things for generals, I suppose he deserves at least a street somewhere. (The longstanding rumor that the present connotation of “hooker” came about because of his personal conduct has been debunked several times.) The present controversy does give us a chance to rethink things, though, in terms of what our history is and how we tell it. The monuments we build, the landmarks we name, the stories we tell our school children do influence how we define what’s important to us. So, what’s in a name?

In several cities, I’ve driven down Martin Luther King Avenue but I’d be interested to know if anybody has ever been on a street called, for instance, Susan B. Anthony Blvd, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton Avenue, or how about Mother Teresa Way? Anne Morrow Lindberg Circle? Or, more historic, Abigail Adams Street? The only landmark I can think of at the moment that’s named for a woman is on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. It’s called Piestewa Peak, renamed from “Squaw Peak” after Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq, the first Native American woman soldier killed in combat. It was a good change, I think.

Lorraine Collins is a free-lance journalist from Spearfish.

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