An anecdote about naming and language:

In the summer of 2010, an idea was circulated in the press that concerned the suggested renaming of Stanley Park in recognition of the Squamish village once located within the present boundaries of the popular tourist destination. With the heightened awareness of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples visualized by the spectacle of that winter’s Olympic games, the suggestion seemed appropriate and long overdue–long overdue as Xwáýxway was settled an estimated 3000 years ago while Lord Stanley, then Governor General of Canada, dedicated the park in 1889. Acknowledging Lord Stanley’s status as the Governor General seems particularly important as it allows the process of naming to appear strange, absurd, an historical contingency since Lord Lansdowne was the Governor General of Canada until 1888–the year Stanley Park was officially opened and a year before Lord Stanley would arrive to dedicate the park. Another example, perhaps clearer for its strangeness: the colonial-era name of the archipelago now known as Haida Gwaii was the Queen Charlotte Islands which was named after a ship named after a queen.

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The reaction from the public to the suggested renaming of the park and to the name Xwáýxway itself was mixed though mostly negative. The comments contained many reflections on language, naming, and Aboriginal cultures (and it should be noted that comments rarely concerned the Squamish people and their culture instead opting for a generalized, and apparently popular, image of an abstracted and singular Aboriginal culture lacking any internal differentiation). Common topics included the apparently Scottish name of the hereditary Squamish chief associated with the suggestion: Chief Ian Campbell, the discussion of the absence of the written word among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to frame the name as a political fiction (as if naming a civic park in honor of the nation’s current Governor General was a politically innocent gesture), and aesthetic judgments concerning the sound of the name Xwáýxway and of Aboriginal languages generally. The name Xwáýxway, along with the name of Spuzzum, an unincorporated settlement beyond Hope, was deemed offensive to ears accustomed to the English language while Haida Gwaii and the Salish Sea (a recently named entity encompassing the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound), were found to be pleasant and acceptable. One remark that is difficult to forget sums up the situation all too well. berk1952 writes, “The name being proposed by native groups is ridiculous and impossible for most people to remember or pronounce.” This comment is revealing as it questions the ability of most people to comprehend, or even say, the word Xwáýxway while ignoring the important fact that there are currently only 15 people that are highly proficient speakers of the Squamish language. It is not a matter of “remembering” the word, it is a matter of learning it and speaking it so that it may be relearned and written for those who come after.

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2 Responses to An anecdote about naming and language:

  1. Michael Cox says:

    I drive tourists around the park part-time, and always mention the name of the village site now occupied as “Lumberman’s Arch” by its aboriginal name, which I pronounce “whay-whay” but I wonder if that is correct. If you want us to learn the name, why not tell me how to say it properly, using phonetic spelling? I mean, I’m doing my best to honour the first people who lived on the land we call Stanley Park, in a very abbreviated way, so a little help on pronounciation would be welcome. (I also promote Klahowya village–which I can pronounce!)

  2. Lorna Brown says:

    More on language and appropriation….
    The following is the text of a letter from Mitchell Cypress, the chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, to President Barack Obama.
    Dear President Obama:
    I am almost without words and I struggle to write how I feel after hearing reports that America’s number one enemy, Usama Bin Laden, was given the codename of fearless Apache leader, Geronimo. Once again, our nation’s native people were categorized as terrorists. The time has never been more appropriate and necessary for you to issue an apology to Native America.
    It has been more than a month since my March 24th letter, requesting an apology to our nation’s Tribes because of the brief filed by prosecutors in the Guantanamo military action against convicted Al Qaeda, Al Buhlal. Within that brief the Seminole Tribe’s defense against a genocidal assault was compared to today’s terrorists. Although, the Department of Defense issued a written apology clarifying the use of the Seminole reference, it is yet a small step toward a shift in healing the tragic history that you promised to remedy during your 2008 campaign. My representative, Tina Osceola, is in communication with your Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, Charlie Galbraith.
    As the leader of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, I am requesting a meeting with you at the White House to discuss how we can work together to strengthen our mutual resolve to improve the image of Indian Country beyond negative stereotypes. In 2008, I listened to your promises to our people and was assured that you would be an advocate for Indian Country. As leaders of our nations, you and I have the opportunity to be the faces of change that all Americans can believe in and the example of true government to government relations. You and I are the hope for a better tomorrow.
    Mitchell Cypress