Most places that humans have explored have names. Naming a place helps people better relate information about that place or what has happened there to one another. But some names are rooted in misogyny, racism and other hateful ideologies.
In fact, just by changing names, a variety of fields have committed erasure of history and culture from those places. Native Americans have lived on lands in what is now known as the United States for thousands of years, and their ways of life and culture were immensely disrupted upon the arrival of colonizers, primarily from Western Europe. Native Americans had names for the places that they lived, often related to the experiences or history that happened there.
On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Christine Johnson was appointed to the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names to help reexamine place names in the U.S. and the history they may have erased. Johnson, an adjunct professor in the Department of Geography, will bring her historical, anthropological and geographical expertise to the committee, alongside 16 other members representing Tribes or Tribal organizations, Native Hawaiian organizations, the general public or those with expertise in a variety of fields.
The committee, announced by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as Secretarial Order 3405, will help identify and recommend changes to derogatory place names. Place names made the news back in September when nearly 650 geographic features with names containing a slur frequently used against Indigenous women were renamed. A prominent example to locals was the renaming of “Sq*** Valley” to “Olympic Valley.” Johnson said that 34 place names in Nevada were replaced as a result of Secretarial Order 3404.
Johnson, who said she could be the poster child for non-traditional education, got her bachelor’s degree at the University. After working out of state for a while, Johnson decided to return to Nevada to pursue her master’s degree in anthropology and began working at the Nevada Historical Society. She then pursued her doctoral degree in geography.
The Nevada Historical Society is one of the agencies legislatively mandated to sit on the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names (NSBGN), and made for a perfect situation for Johnson’s appointment to the NSBGN beginning in 2013. The NSBGN serves to research, develop and approve geographic names in the state, and weighs in on controversies when they arise. She was elected to the Executive Secretary position on the board. Johnson later started teaching at the University in the geography and anthropology departments.
Alongside her work as a adjunct faculty and being the Executive Secretary on the Nevada State Board of Geographic Names, Johnson now serves as the Executive Director of the Sparks Heritage Museum. She has also collaborated with the Nevada Indian Commission and the Intertribal Council to build communication between the NSBGN and the Tribes in Nevada.
Johnson said many people don’t know that every state has a board on geographic names.
“It’s our job to tell people, and also the peoples’ job to share their opinions,” Johnson said. Members of the public can recommend names for places or can raise issues related to place names.
“Words matter,” Johnson said. She and other geographic name authorities have to balance the history of what has happened in a place, which is how many places in the U.S. have gotten their English names, with the history that Indigenous peoples had prior to the colonization of the U.S. “When Native names were replaced with English names, the impact on people and the loss of culture in the place is significant, and continues to impact the people still today.”
In January of 2022, Johnson took on a leadership role within the Council of Geographic Names Authorities (CoGNA). As part of the hosting committee for the NSBGN, she hosted the annual CoGNA conference here in Reno, welcoming other states to connect and discuss naming issues in other places across the nation. The work she does in the various geographic agencies inspires her to bring naming issues to the forefront of peoples’ minds when they look at a map.
Graduate student Autumn Harry, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, was inspired by a talk by Johnson. Harry’s thesis project is centered around the restoration of Indigenous place names, like the Numu (Northern Paiute) name for Pyramid Lake: Kooyooe Panunadu. Johnson was thrilled she helped to inspire such an important project.
“Place names have always been a passion of mine and a fortuitous use of my degree out of the Department of Geography,” Johnson said. “I’m a super proud alumna and do everything I can to give back to this University. If it wasn’t for the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Geography, I wouldn’t have the life I have today – working with students, the public, communities, Tribes – all of what I do is interconnected and I find great value in the work I’m doing as a result of my degrees and professional experience.”
While Johnson waits to learn more about what her role within the Federal Advisory Committee will be, she looks forward to working with the group.
“We are so fortunate to be working in a very inclusive and hopefully very transparent way to bring the topic of reconciling derogatory names on the landscape to the masses and get as much input as possible as we try to fix this,” Johnson said. She and the other members of the committee will be wading into uncharted waters. The project will be a huge undertaking, and the committee will meet two to four times per year, to identify and solicit replacements for derogatory place names.
“All 16 of us all bring our own professional and, possibly, cultural lenses to this,” Johnson said. “It’s a wonderful time that we’re in right now that we feel comfortable discussing this and people are ready to listen.”