Across the United States and around the world, monuments to racists and genocidal colonists are being toppled, thrown into rivers, vandalized, and quietly removed. People are assembling around confederate flags, historical markers, derogatory street signs, and other symbolic sites of cultural and political violence, seeking to challenge structures of oppression through the symbols that serve to reinforce settler-colonial relations to the land. Within this context, campaigns to change place-names are erupting across the US, many led by communities that are dealing with the enduring impacts of settler-colonial dispossession and racism, as well as the historical and ongoing impacts of exploitation, erasure, and extraction.
Responding to these grassroots efforts, the US Department of the Interior recently announced plans to replace 660 place names containing the derogatory term ‘squaw’, as well as forming a Reconciliation in Place Names Advisory Committee. The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers recently released a guide on how to officially change place names, and this month a group of scientists have published “Words are Monuments,” a quantitative study of over 2,200 place names at 16 National Parks that reveals the system-wide scale of problematic names on public lands.
The Natural History Museum has created an interactive website and virtual event series exploring how place-names shape our ways of seeing and relating. Maps are not neutral, and they endure for generations. What is the ideological function of colonial place-names? How do they work to enshrine capitalist and colonial relations to place, and what do they render invisible? What struggles over place-names are currently ongoing, and how are artists, scientists, scholars, and communities participating in them? What other naming practices exist, and how do they function? How might campaigns to change place-names be situated within a broader emancipatory project—of remapping the world as a world in common, beyond domination, enclosure and extraction?