Lauret E Savoy (32:35):
California was the place before race. And my father decided to move back to Washington DC, which was his familial home for generations at the time of riots when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. And so we returned east to a place that seemed to be filled with hate. And it was the first time that I understood that colored could mean something very different from sun and sky and I learned that the first time at the age of seven and eight, when I was spat upon and learned that I could be hated for the color of my skin.
Rehman Tungekar (33:15):
And so at this point, I mean, did you see the natural world as kind of a refuge from that kind of hate?
Lauret E Savoy (33:22):
Absolutely. I thought or I came to understand and I think this was one of the hardest lessons I learned as a young child, was that the landscape itself, whether it was a river named Potomac or a canyon called Grand, the landscape did not hate. It proceeded hatred. Only people hate it. And so I did seek solace and refuge in the land because I knew I wouldn't be judged or spat upon or hated.
Rehman Tungekar (33:52):
You bring a lot to the table in these essays. I mean you are a nature writer and an environmental scholar. You're also a person of color and we don't really usually hear that perspective in nature writing. What changes about how we think about nature when we consider the sad legacy of race in America?
Lauret E Savoy (34:09):
I think many people think of nature writing as going out into nature, experiencing it in solitude, but I think it's very important to think of environment in nature in a larger sense. Take a for example, the idea of wilderness. Wilderness as an idea and as preserved land never existed apart from human experience. And if you consider Yellowstone which is the first national park established in 1872 by Congress, what many people don't realize is that that land lay within ancestral homelands of Shoshone, Bannok, Crow and what were regarded as Sheep Eater Tribal Peoples. The US army would have to remove these peoples to reservations. So it's important to remember that even wildernesses had a long indigenous presence.
Rehman Tungekar (35:10):
In another chapter of the book, you write about place names, names like Sequoia, Shenandoah, Cheyenne, Mojave, Yosemite and a lot of these names come from native traditions. So what changes when you kind of unearth those histories?
Lauret E Savoy (35:28):
What's really critical to understand is that far from innocent naming and mapping were essential to the projects of possessing and creating a new world. And so half of the United States or more than half of the United States names originated in some form from native languages, but the words and the phrases were often reshaped by European colonists and their descendants with little sense of the original use and context. A really good case in point is the name Wyoming. It originally came from a valley in Northeastern, Pennsylvania that was named the Weamiing valley by the Lenape people there. And it meant either at the big flat or the great meadows. But in 1778, during the American revolution, there was a massacre or a killing of 300 settlers by British and their allies who were Tois as well as Iroquois.
Lauret E Savoy (36:34):
And because of that massacre in honoring the people who had been killed, a poem was written in the early 1800s that was called Gertrude of Wyoming. And that poem became extraordinarily popular. And then within a few decades, the name Wyoming was applied to different places from the East Coast westward. And it won out because of the sound. It sounded beautiful.
Rehman Tungekar (37:03):
Well, another thing you point out in the book is that there's also a long history of names that involve slurs, especially those referring to African-Americans. And frankly, I was amazed to discover that many of these derogatory names still exist.
Lauret E Savoy (37:18):
Unfortunately they do. There were before 1963 about 200 American place names that had, and forgive me for saying this horrible word, but nigger as part of the word. And if I may say a few, they included Dead Nigger Creek, Dead Nigger Hill, Nigger Gulch, Nigger Prairie, on and on. And for decades, the NAACP and other groups petitioned an organization within the federal government that's called the US Board on Geographic Names, which is the organization in government that officially gives place names and monitors place names.
Lauret E Savoy (38:00):
And so the board was petitioned again and again and finally in 1963, it changed nigger to negro in most of the cases, but not everywhere. Some of the original uses still linger and other slur names remain as well or they've only recently been changed. Near Pocatello, Idaho is a mountain that once was called Chinks Peak and in 2001, it was named Chinese Peak, but many are still, as you noted official names on the land. There's [inaudible 00:38:36] in California, there's Darkey Springs in Tennessee. There's [inaudible 00:38:42] in New Mexico. There's [inaudible 00:38:45] in Wyoming. There's Dead Injun Creek in Oregon. There's Sambo Creek in many states. And they go on and on.
Rehman Tungekar (38:55):
I guess I'm wondering for you, are you able to the still appreciate the natural beauty of a landscape if it has one of these awful names?
Lauret E Savoy (39:03):
Oh, of course. The place is not the name. And if you understand the history of naming as a history of overlay, the name is not the place, but they are overlays that tell us much about history, about the history of possession, of conquest, of relabeling. And for me, the whole journey across the country, discovering these unspoken histories has been a way of finding home. And we're marked by residues of the country still unfolding history and residues that include silence and displacement that cross generations.