Dr Bonnie McGill is on a mission to make indigenous people visible again.
This week Jean interviews Dr. Bonnie McGill, an ecosystem ecologist, David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, and Science Communication Fellow at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the lead author of the report “Words Are Monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy,” published recently in People and Nature. Dr. McGill currently works with rural communities on climate change communication.
Jean Latting 0:10
Dr. Bonnie McGill has just written a paper about place names in the national parks that carry the legacy of the colonial era. Confederate monuments are not the only national symbol of slavery.
Bonnie McGill 2:27
I live and work on land stolen from Native Americans by European settler colonizers, including my ancestors. The area now known as Pittsburgh is within the ancestral lands and rivers stewarded by the Seneca, Monongahela, Lenape, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Osage peoples.
Jean Latting 3:31
What were the pivotal moments that got you from wherever you grew up to here?
Bonnie McGill 3:42
One of my internships in college took me to my first national park, which was Glacier National Park, up in northwestern Montana bordering Canada I really got to know the place pretty intimately, my job was being out there measuring stuff in the river, backpacking with other interns over the summer.
Jean Latting 10:15
How did you get interested in conservation?
Bonnie McGill 10:19
In my PhD work, I was studying conservation on farmlands and how that impacts water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. And, therefore, climate change. When I finished my PhD, I got this fellowship that's for conservation scientists.
Jean Latting 14:18
Take us now to the opportunity to work on landmarks naming in the national parks.
Bonnie McGill 14:35
I was in Grand Teton National Park with my fellow David H. Smith conservation research fellows in 2018. We have Black Lives Matter, we have Confederate statues coming down around the world, we have this inkling that our own discipline is somehow related to those things.
We feel this responsibility to take our privilege, and the power that we have as being these prestigious fellows, and our ability to work with data to somehow make visible what can seem invisible to a lot of people, not everyone, but maybe like dominant society.
How can we do that? Someone mentioned the name of places in Yellowstone National Park. There's a Grant campsite; does that mean Dr. Madison Grant, a figure in the beginnings of national parks who was also a eugenicist? That’s someone who supports managing the gene pool of humanity towards usually being a more White society, who should reproduce and who shouldn't. I work at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Andrew Carnegie gave money to eugenics, so, it's surprising. But then you learn, “Oh, a lot of people were doing that,” which doesn't make it okay. So we thought, “That's it. place names. They are our Confederate statues.”
Jean Latting 18:00
Was this the project itself? There were some Native Americans in a movement that was part of this. How does that flow together?
Bonnie McGill 18:18
As we started looking into place names, we saw that other people are doing this for a long time, especially Native Americans protesting settler colonizer place names on their land. Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations is working to change the name of what's now called Devil's Monument in Wyoming that's an offensive, derogatory name for indigenous people. We don't want to be doing work for them, speaking for anyone, but how can we use our skills?
Are these happening all over the country, or is it just in Wyoming, Yellowstone, Devil's monument? We found by looking at 16 national parks, which is about 25 percent of the parks, over 2000 place names. And what we found is that in each of the parks, there are places named after memorializing settler colonizers. You know, “The first person to discover this mountain, or live in this valley,” and they weren't the first people, there had been Native Americans living there.
Bonnie McGill 20:47
The power of our voice as scientists is with data. What can we count? What can we measure? To help paint a picture for people for whom counts and measures are important, we'll count it and measure it for you.
What we decided to do is to look at a subset of 16 of the national parks and take all the place names on their visitor maps, you know, when you go to a national park, and they give you that free map. All the place names that a visitor might see when they come to a park.
Then we categorized them based on whether they are from a European language, or from a native language? Is it the name of a person? Who's that person? What did they do? Why do they have a place named after them? Is the name a traditional indigenous place name that miraculously made it through the settler colonizer period? We found about 4.8% of the place names were these traditional indigenous place names.
An example of that would be Denali, which was actually restored back to what was formerly called Mount McKinley. The Athabaskan peoples who live around there have been calling it Denali for about 10,000 years.
Jean Latting 24:09
What's the movement? What is it that you all are trying to achieve? All lands restored to their original names?
Bonnie McGill 24:25
Well, this is where my scientist with an agenda does reach kind of a limit. What we're doing with this paper really is saying, here's the picture of what it is, here's what we have. For people who didn't see that there was a problem, maybe it helps them see that there's a problem at such a scale.
They can help support people like Secretary Deb Holland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, with her work to address derogatory place names. She has put in a new rule that will remove all place names using the word “squaw” from all federal lands. To a lot of people, it's kind of new that it's officially derogatory. But it is.
Jean Latting 26:25
And as a scientist, you're saying you're limited to presenting the information.
Bonnie McGill 26:36
There's a lot of violence in that history that we don't talk about, some of these names memorialize that violence, and remind Native Americans of genocide.
Let's take a specific example. Let's take Mountain Doane in Yellowstone National Park. It's named after a Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, who fought in the Civil War. He was a part of the US Army. Many Union soldiers, Civil War soldiers, after the Civil War went and fought in the Indian wars of the West and clearing the West and violently forcing Native Americans onto reservations.
He got his name on a mountain in Yellowstone because he was part of one of the surveyor expeditions for the settler colonizers to map out Yellowstone. But just a few months prior to that expedition, Doane was involved in a massacre of mostly women and children and older people of Blackfeet Indians, Native Americans, in January in Montana.
It's a very hard memory that’s still with Blackfeet people today. And so, in one of our most favorite treasured national parks, Yellowstone National Park, we have a mountain that's a monument to a man who slaughtered Native Americans.
And, you know, some people say a visitor who sees Mount Doane on the map doesn't know that, no harm done. But for the people who do know, it can act as a kind of a dog whistle. “Hey, this stuff is still okay. You can get your name on a mountain.” The wink, the dog whistle, for people who look for signs that there is White supremacy still in charge of the country, they can say, “See?”
Jean Latting 33:07
I'm in my role of [a focus on]the insult, right? You're saying another side of it, which had not occurred to me that it's a dog whistle, it’s telling the descendants of the slaughterers, “You’re okay. It's all okay.”
Bonnie McGill 33:48
it’s named after you, even though you just showed up here because we moved those Native Americans out of the way. That's how easily we can squash a whole people and their history of a place.
Actually, Texas has a lot of cool place name changes just in the last year, like 20 places that had the word Negro in their place names. Because in the ‘70s, the US board of Geographic Names changed all places that had the N word in them to Negro. And now people are wanting to get rid of Negro. There were like 20 places where the names were changed. And it seems like they're all named after historic African American figures. So now it's reminding us of your history and contributions to society rather than not doing that.
Jean Latting 37:13
Thanks, Bonnie. If anybody has questions, how should they contact you?
Bonnie McGill 37:34
My website is Bonniem.weebly.com. That's W-E-E-B-L-Y.
Bonnie McGill, PhD (she/her)
Bonnie is an ecosystem ecologist, David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, and Science Communication Fellow, Center for Anthropocene Studies, Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the lead author of the report “Words Are Monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy,” published recently in People and Nature. Dr. McGill currently works with rural communities on climate change communication.
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