The American Indians are on the warpath and with good reason, it would seem. For at least two hundred years their grave sites have been desecrated simply to satisfy the curiosity of the White Man. On the defensive, archaeologists are arguing that in all cultures studied graves are one of the best sources of information. The Indians say “so what?” and are demanding the remains of their ancestors and their grave goods be put back. The Indians are winning.
Good. Professional archaeologists, especially in recent years, have been playing dog in the manger with somebody else’s manger, and as an amateur student of human endeavor, I’ve come to resent it. Local Indian sites from which I intended to take nothing were off limits. When I asked to see results from official digs (paperwork or artifacts) everything had been misplaced and everybody involved was on “vacation.” The few times I found Indian bones washing out from banks, I’ve buried them deeper. Power to the Red People.
But not too much power. I’m sympathetic, but to a degree. I recognize the plight of minorities, (especially Celtic, male. Episcopalians), and I want all persons to live in harmony, but I’m totally baffled by the uproar surrounding this year’s grand celebration of Columbus’ discovery of America. Five-hundred years ago the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria made a landfall that certainly changed my life for the better. I was taught this in a South Carolina elementary school along with how to sing the names of our forty-eight or so counties, and I have never had reason to doubt the validity of either lesson.
True, Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America. Even back then, we were told about the Vikings, and in the years since everybody from the Phoenicians to Basque fishermen have had a go at the task. Columbus was just the first to make a difference. Except, now it turns out, he did it all wrong. “The Gem of the Ocean” was a tyrannical and inept seaman who blundered into a Caribbean paradise where he single-handedly introduced the evils of genocide and slavery. Yep, he invented genocide and slavery just for the trip and butter wouldn’t melt on the tongues of the cannibalistic Carribs who were already there.
This is old business and a funny-not-so-funny business at that. (Voltaire made better use of it in Candide than I will.) Still, in these supersensitive times it’s being approached with a fresh seriousness. The grand plans for the 500-year anniversary celebration were drastically scaled back. If possible the voyage would be ignored completely, but with wheels in motion it’s necessary to follow through with some of that hair-shirt, self-accusatory lunacy we’ve all grown to love-hate. “Five centuries ago Columbus accidentally landed in America, but it wouldn’t have happened if someone with compassion and foresight had murdered him in his crib.” A celebration apologizing along these lines might allow us to hold status and quo together. Teddy Roosevelt won’t get scraped off Mount Rushmore, Columbus Day can stay on a few calendars, and closer to home (mine) South Carolina’s state capital can still go by the name of Columbia.
That’s a best-possible scenario, though, and so I’ve started making contingency plans. When the committee forms to rename the capital, they’ll certainly go through the charade of public input, and I plan to be ready. Naturally the name will have to be an Indian one, which in this state isn’t such a drastic demand. Numerous places (rivers, towns, counties, and all manner of landmarks) are already going by Indian names. I’m writing this essay on the banks of Jeremy Creek, to the south is Sewee Bay and Tibwin Creek, to the west Wambaw Swamp, and to the north the Santee River. All are Indian names that have outlived their origins by at least 275 years. Though they might twist the words about and lop off a syllable or two, white settlers in this neighborhood kept the aboriginal names. I’m not sure why, but will be happy to guess.
Explorers and Indian traders (most were both) were the first to venture into these backwoods, and since they were spending most of their time with the Indians it didn’t make much sense to call a stream the Rubicon or the Thames. If they were literate, they maintained this prejudice in their correspondence and on the crude maps they made (fancier versions were simply copies of these). Early settlers picked up these names and in the interest of property rights they were put on plats and entered into public record. Of equal importance was the oral tradition, always a relatively conservative source of information. If your pa called it the Santee River, so did you and your children.
That’s my guess, but another has been often suggested. The Indian name was an integral part of the New World Adventure—the Grand Romance of Eden Discovered. Yes, but the country around me was named at the beginning of the 18th century, and on this side of the Atlantic, that sort of romanticism tended to be a luxury of the I9th century, just as the cult of sensibilities has become the luxury of our own. Washington Irving, of Knickerbocker fame, wrote that he favored returning to “the original Indian names of places, and whenever they are striking and euphonious, and those by which they have been superseded are glaringly objectionable, to restore them.” He’d replaced “Mill Creek” with “Pocantico.” A few years later (1826) Robert Mills, “America’s First Architect,” passed along the shores of Jeremy Creek where I sit writing, and said much the same. “It is to be regretted that more of the Indian names of places, streams, etc. have not been retained among us, as they would have rendered such places more interesting to us, and particular to future generations; their superior poetic sound would better grace the minstrel’s song.” Dismayed that his fellow engineers had numbered the creeks they were dredging, he restored the names and added an extra “my” syllable to this one: “Jeremymy.” (He mapped the entire state, and then returned north to build the Washington Monument.)
Yes, I’m not the first to start putting Indian names back, but the sentiment of that last century leaves us only with some happy rhyming and the illusion of substantive meaning. The fact is, in this vicinity, the few Indian names that can be translated are simply mundane descriptions. Santee probably means “the big river,” and most of the rest are also references to water in some form. That just won’t do for a state capital like “the glaringly objectionable” Columbia. If we’re to rename it we’ve got to have something both poetic and meaningful, and I won’t risk another commemorative to some fleeting value judgment or tyrannical inept rascal.
So, then, a Cherokee translation of “Place where, last year, 21 legislators were convicted of accepting bribes” might do. Or maybe “Place where archaeologists once misplaced artifacts and paperwork and stayed on vacation.” This is fun, but I’ve got to get serious. How about a Catawba translation of “Place where canoes are routinely paddled from both ends against the middle”? I’m afraid that’s it for me, unless the rules can be bent to include General William Tecumseh Sherman. Consider this: General Sherman was named in part after Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief of admirable talents—among them the ability to defeat United States soldiers. In addition, the Union general wasn’t so inept that he couldn’t find Columbia and burn it down. Plus, his men didn’t consider him tyrannical. Shermantown. Yes, I like that. It rolls off the tongue. It purges us.