On a startlingly dark evening in November, I logged onto the Champinefu Lecture Story Map: Indigenous Naming of Creeks on Marys Peak, presented by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and The Spring Creek Project. The event was also part of the Grand Ronde 2020 History and Culture Summit. I had no clear concept of what the talk would be specifically about. I only knew that this was about indigenous naming of creeks, and having spent much of my upbringing in rural Colorado on the traditional lands of the Ute, Comanche, and Apache, and exploring the Apishapa River in the shadows of the twin peaks known as Huajatolla, I was indeed interested. My knowledge of native history in the valley I was raised in has never been well-rounded and I find myself now in Oregon, with even more histories and contexts, regrettably, beyond my knowledge. So I looked forward to learning whatever was going to be shared and I logged on to virtually attend, feeling the familiar covid-era ache to attend things in person as one often does these days.
David Harrelson was our host and utilized a virtual background that digitally placed him on a hilltop view of a beautiful sunset over rolling hills. The edges of his form flickered and danced to keep him placed in this image. He introduced why we were gathered and quickly gave the information on how this project came to fruition. Essentially, the Marys Peak Alliance (MPA) and the Alliance for Recreation and Natural Areas (AFRANA) asked the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Siletz if they wanted to name these creeks that have never been formally named before. The tribes said yes and this precipitated a years-long process of study, council, and exploration. Jesse Norton, Greg Archuleta (of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) and David Eckert (of the MPA) guided us through a presentation of the naming processes with special care to the histories, contexts, and experiences of Marys Peak. They notably utilized Story Map by Esri as their presentation platform which was unknown technology to me but is designed for storytelling with maps. Though perfect for this event and recounting of this process, their high-quality videos and audio had a hard time sharing the bandwidth with the large Zoom event so videos could not play. No judgment or frustration was sensed from the audience and I certainly had none since we all are learning our limitations with every passing day on Zoom. I learned a lot in these talks. They discussed native flora, traditions, rare animals, and the integral watershed of Mary’s Peak in general to start and then went creek by creek discussing the intricacies and relationships with each one. Camas flowers, Tarweed fire harvests, newts, bears, and William Hartless stories all helped to build the Marys Peak watershed in our minds.The character and agency afforded to these small and oftentimes dry creeks was wonderful to see and hear about. My hand was cramping from feverous note-taking since all of this is new information to me.
The creeks were named after protagonists in the indigenous stories from the area. The decided names are Ahsnay “the coyote”, Ahngeengeen “the flint or stone/rock”, Ahnhoots “the panther”, Ahntkwahkwah “the frog”, Ahshayum “the grizzly”, and Ahmoolint “the wolf”. They went through them carefully one by one with pictures, stories, and detailed notes on the traits/character of each creek. The most intriguing bits were off-script moments seeing these men gleefully recall eating the berries as they explored these creeks. Their experience was definitely special and I was jealous. I was whipped back to childhood days entirely spent following my backyard creek miles away from my home. Sometimes I brought a friend, sometimes my dogs stayed close, and sometimes I was very alone. They were all special times and I could sense that feeling in these people, even through my computer monitor and the over-compressed audio of Zoom.
Following the presentation was a Q&A among the host and presenters that covered their takeaways from the experience first. All involved were grateful to have this opportunity to connect with the land in this way. David Eckert mentioned his overwhelming love for the mountain and the way it “breathes” water. He also mentioned his newfound appreciation for a particular discussion method learned throughout the process and the potently positive relationships he had built over the last few years. The relationships and connections were paramount to everyone involved.
The most striking moment came when questions were turned to David Harrelson, our host. It was my favorite moment of the event. He started echoing the positivity shared by the other presenters but his speech became less formal and more passionate as he sunk into what he really loved about this naming process. He explained the immense value of naming rather than re-naming. It has so many positives and no negatives. It reintroduces traditional language to the land, it creates better navigation for search and rescue, it creates proactive communication within the tribes and beyond, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. Renaming, although beneficial, comes at a cost and controversy can be very harmful for the tribes. It was so engaging, I forgot to take as many notes as I should have. He discussed the complex relationships of these names because the indigenous names for these places are known and passed on within that community despite what is or isn’t shared with colonizers. The naming of these creeks is a small but powerful act.
The rest of the panel was asked to discuss the questions: Why name things? The responses were great and referenced the importance of small streams, furthering uses of indigenous language, and the furthering of relationships was a main point of every presenter. Everyone made very thankful and gratuitous closing remarks and mentioned that we need to love and respect Marys Peak. Its uniqueness and importance seem hard to overstate. David Eckert made sure to mention that this naming process was slow on purpose. He made clear that it was done without governmental bureaucracy and was designed to retain the dignity and overwhelming good of people. At its peak viewership, I believe there were 150 of us viewing. We were in a meeting setting rather than a webinar and the small animant tiles of people listening, reacting, or sleeping made for an intriguing tapestry. I want to extend my thanks to all involved and commend the wonderful work and presentation done by everyone involved. It gave all of us in attendance so many great things to ruminate on as we move forward in our difficult and complicated new world of isolation.