Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

NOVEMBER 2009  What's in a Name?

NOVEMBER 2009 nbspWhat039s in a Name

"Nothing was discovered. Everything was already loved."  From the poem "Homeland," by Karenne Wood (Monacan)

Whenever I come to a new place, I'm curious about why it looks and feels the way it does today. Places have layers. Each has a unique natural history, native history, immigrant history, industrial history, and so on. The more I learn about where I am, the more "there" I feel. That's what "sense of place" is all about.

For Thanksgiving this month, in honor of the people who extended their hand so the Pilgrims would not starve and die, we're going to look at the Native American names of places where we live.

All the land we live upon is Native American land, and it's dense with stories. Some are beautiful, some are tragic. The names of streets, towns, rivers, mountains, and lakes, even the name of your state, can tell you about the people who lived (and in many cases still live) in your area. Often you can uncover the native name for a place before it got "discovered" and was renamed.

Listening to the Land
Learning about the layers of time in one place gets my imagination going. I start to think about where the past and the present intersect. Often I'll build a song around what a place must have been like before and what it feels like to be there today.

There's a place near our house called Pocumtuck Mountain, where we sometimes hike. I decided to look up Pocumtuck. I found out that it's the name of a tribe that used to live here, and that there is a mountain range off Highway 91 called the Pocumtuck Range. I pass it all the time. The Pocumtucks are said to have told a story about the range being the shape of a giant beaver that once lived at the bottom of an enormous lake. This is so interesting because many thousands of years ago, a postglacial lake, Lake Hitchcock, occupied the Connecticut River valley.

All I knew before was that the mountain at the end of the range was called Mount Sugarloaf, and that it's a popular picnic spot and an awesome place to watch the hawk migration. Now I see the shape of a giant beaver. And it makes me think about how this valley was a huge lake at one time. I think about what might look the same and what might look different when the Pocumtucks walked here. I think about them living here and telling these stories at night, and it makes me feel more connected to this place. And that's a feeling we could all use more of these days.

Try this: Find some place-names in your area and follow their trail. Sometimes the translations are full of colorful imagery that will make you look at a place in a new way

Have you ever referred to a town as "the place where Home Depot is?" You might learn that its name means "place of clear waters." If you can't find the name's meaning, you can make one up based on the natural features unique to that place. It will shift your whole perspective about that town.

Or look up your state's name. Many are based on native names. For example, Massachusetts means "at or about a great hill." Minnesota is from a Dakota word meaning "sky-tinted water," and Mississippi means "father of the waters."

Your story: After learning the origins of some familiar place-names, do you think about your place differently and want to learn more about the people who created those names? Can you see another layer of time? Can you sense the past more clearly? Now that you know a deeper story about your place, how do you see it differently?

Let me know what you find! Post a comment below.

updated: 7 years ago