Deb Haaland and Mount Howard

With all of the “stuff” going on in the world—war in Ukraine, famine in Somalia, floods, heat waves, climate change and inflation everywhere—it’s easy to overlook the work at the US Department of the Interior. And to overlook its director, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland.

I’ve written before about her appointment of Chuck Sams as the Director of the National Park System, and her vigorous examination of the death of children at Indian boarding schools. Today’s New York Times brings the story of name changes:

“A mountain in Yellowstone National Park, named for an Army officer who led a massacre in which at least 173 Native Americans were slaughtered, has been renamed in honor of America’s Indigenous people, the National Park Service said…. the U.S. Board on Geographic Names… voted unanimously to rename Mount Doane, a 10,551-foot peak in the southeastern part of Yellowstone… First Peoples Mountain.”

Fitting of course, as Yellowstone was used by many tribes prior to its being named a National Park in 1872. Those tribes were forcibly removed, though one can imagine that they continued to travel through the park in search of plants and game. The Nez Perce captured tourists there in the fighting retreat of 1877!

This was not an isolated event at Interior. The department had already announced that it would remove the racist term “squaw” from 660 geographic sites, including mountains, rivers and lakes. A task force was created to rename landmarks in the National Parks system.

This renaming did not begin with Deb Haaland, although she has certainly accelerated it—with no apparent backlash. “In 2016, the Park Service renamed North America’s highest peak — Mount McKinley in Alaska — as Mount Denali. That name, meaning “the great one” or “the high one” in the Alaska Native language Koyukon.” Mount Mckinley had been named for a President who had no connection to the mountain.

McKinley was a soft target, while Mount Doane was harder fare. But It’s hard to argue with renaming something named after a perpetrator of a massacre of Native Americans in today’s world, hard to imagine a time in which such naming was the norm.

Our Mount Howard is named after the general who chased the Non-Treaty Nez Perce out of the Wallowa and across some 1200 miles of the West in 1877. Howard was not guilty of massacre, and although he wrote his own accounts of the Nez Perce War, justifying his actions, and even met with Chief Joseph years after the conflict, Howard was certainly not a Northwest hero. (He does have a college named after him in Washington, D.C., for which he deserves credit as its founder.)

Mount Howard didn’t even get its current name until 1926. I have not researched the steps taken in renaming what white settlers had called “Signal Mountain.” A Nez Perce friend, who knows no Native term for the peak, thought that name made some sense as one can see—and could thus signal—far and wide from its summit.

Many visitors and some locals, on reading accounts of the Nez Perce War, ask about the naming of Mount Howard, wondering how and why it got there, and what might be done to change it.

Maybe it’s time to take a serious look at the questions—and the mountain that we see from the city of Joseph every day. One can’t help notice that it looks west, across Wallowa Lake to Mount Joseph, in a strange kind of juxtaposition that recalls participants—combatants—in a series of events that removed Native peoples from a land they had lived in for millennia.

While Deb Haaland and Chuck Sams are on duty in Washington.

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