Monday, September 27, 2010

Every Name Tells a Story (Part 2 of 3)

The African explorer Henry Stanley reported that the name of the Zambezi River in southern Africa came from the local natives’ word “zambezi” – meaning “river.” Apparently, the local natives called their river “the river.” It was the white explorers who began using the word “Zambezi” as the name of the river. That’s probably how the Oconaluftee River near the town of Cherokee, NC got its name. The Cherokee word for “river” or “by the river” was “oconaluftee.” That common noun (with a lower-case o) for “by the river” was converted by the white man into the name (with an upper-case O) of that particular river. Just as zambezi became the Zambezi River, oconaluftee became the Oconaluftee River.

The naming of our Native American tribes involved a similar process, but with an added twist. Most of today’s tribal names are not the names that the tribes called themselves; they are names given to them by the neighboring tribes and white frontiersmen. For example, the Cherokee called themselves “ani-yun-wiya.” Today, we should call them “Ani-yun-wiya,” but we don’t. We call them “Cherokee” which is probably a variation of the name that the Choctaw or Creek tribes called them – “tisolki” or “tsalagi.” It meant “the people in the land of caves” or “the people who speak a different language.”

To understand how this process works, picture the white trappers and traders of the 1700s and 1800s gradually moving west in search of land and game. Before moving farther, they’d ask the local tribe about the next tribe who lived further to the west. Of course, the host tribe would give the word that they called the neighboring tribe rather than the word that the neighboring tribe called itself. The white frontiersmen thought that was the proper name of the tribe when in reality it was just a word meaning, very roughly, “foreigners, not us.” So, not only did common nouns become proper nouns, but those nouns originated from neighboring tribes and not from the tribe itself. Thus, the Ani-yun-wiya (meaning roughly “us”) came to be called the Tsalagi (meaning roughly “not us”) which to white ears was Cherokee (now the name of the tribe).

It’s also interesting that almost without exception, a tribe’s name for itself meant “the people” or “the best people” or “the beautiful people.” A tribe’s word for its neighbors usually meant “enemy” or “inferior people” or “those who speak a different language.” The only difference between then and now is that today people in every nation will show others the courtesy of calling them by their own, official name, but with the oft-spoken understanding that our way of life is superior to theirs. Americans frequently call the US the greatest country in the world. Of course, that’s what Canadians say about Canada, Mexicans say about Mexico, Poles say about Poland, etc. etc. A lot has changed over the millennia, but ethnic or national pride seems to be hard-wired into our cultural DNA. Us versus Them.

But back to the names of the rivers and ridges in the Smokies. . .

I just picked out several USGS 7.5 minute topo maps and looked at the names of the various topographic features. Here’s a list of those with the most character: Doghobble Branch, Killpecker Ridge, Panther Den Ridge, Bee Gum Branch, Potato Ridge, Roaring Fork, Bone Valley, Brushy Mt., Cherokee Orchard, Trillium Branch, Peregrine Peak, Rocky Top, Breakneck Ridge, Bearwallow Branch, Eagle Rocks, Shanty Mountain., Mill Creek, Edens Garden Creek. Those are the kinds of names that have character – local, rural character. Those are names which tickle the imagination. It would make a good writing assignment for school kids. Choose a name, then make up an imaginative story of how the name came to be.

Buzzard Rock near Devils Den
Then there are the names with no earthy character, no imagination required: Mount LeConte, Mount Kephart, Mount Cammerer, Mount Guyot, Clingmans Dome.

Charlies Bunion (center), Mt. Kephart in background

How did these sites get their names? A government committee. [To be continued]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Local Character Assassination (Part 1 of 3)

The town of Gatlinburg used to be White Oak Flats. The town I live in used to be called Mossy Creek but is now Jefferson City. Now I like Thomas Jefferson as much as the next guy, but “Mossy Creek” has character – a rural charm that “Jefferson City” just doesn’t have, which is exactly why the city fathers changed the name 100 years ago. They were embarrassed by the unsophisticated name. Likewise, Carson-Newman College was once the Wampus Cats. Today we are the Eagles. Same motives, same process, no charm, no regional connection, no character. I’d call it character assassination, where the character that’s being killed is the earthy, down-home connection that is born among the local residents. It’s what the poets call “a sense of place.”

This kind of local character assassination took place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but on a fairly limited scale. Some names were changed, but there are still a lot of funky, local names in the park.

For example, in the park, you’ll find places like Devils Den, Panther Creek, and the Cat Stairs, names which provide some interesting images and room for the imagination to wander. I’ve seen several Devils Dens in the Appalachians, and they all are fields or slopes of huge boulders – scattered, piled, and balanced on each other, giving the impression that the Devil himself would live there or simply that a guy would have a devil of a time trying to walk through. The Devils Den on the southern slopes of Greenbrier Pinnacle is exactly the same. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon scrambling and sliding my way through it. I didn’t see the Devil, but it did look like the kind of place where he’d feel comfortable, although maybe a bit too serene for his taste – too many singing birds and chirping frogs and not enough weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are at least six Panther Creeks, Panther Branches, etc. in the park, reminders that mountain lions used to live in this area. From the west you can see the rocky escarpment that forms the upper end of the Cat Stairs on the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle. I assume the name Cat Stairs has something to do with mountain lions, as well. I’d like to think that it used to be a favorite haunt of these big cats. I can visualize them prowling around the cliffs and ledges of this mountain. I’d also like to think that there’s a cat or two living there still; although the official park literature says not. (Although, every year there are several alleged sightings of these cats in the park, often by knowledgeable people who ought to know.)

There are still a few Mill Creeks and Mill Branches in the park, which is a lot less than there used to be. When the park was being established in the 1920s and 30s, there were over thirty Mill Creeks in the Smokies, a reminder that local folks often give rather utilitarian names to local features. The creek with several grist mills on it would be… Mill Creek, of course. The fact that just about every valley had a creek with one or more mills on it meant that nearly every valley had a Mill Creek. Since the folks who lived in these valleys didn’t wander very far from home, the only Mill Creek each community needed to worry about was their own. The fact that there were dozens of Mill Creeks would eventually drive the map makers crazy, but it caused no confusion for the local folks.

Small (unnamed) falls on Mill Creek

Several years ago I spent a few weeks reading some of the writings of the African explorers Henry Stanley and David Livingstone. I believe it was Stanley who mentioned that the name of the Zambezi River in southern Africa came from the local natives’ word “zambezi” – meaning “river.” Yes, that’s right, the local natives called their river “the river.” No need to single it out with a special name because it was their one, big, local river. If a guy told his wife he was going to the “zambezi,” she’d know he was going to their river, just as my wife knows that if I’m “going to the river,” she could find me on the Holston somewhere downstream of Cherokee Dam. It was the European explorers who began using the word “Zambezi” as the name of the river. They turned a common noun with a lower case “z” into a proper noun with an upper case “Z” because they were mappers and explorers ranging far across the continent. They needed different names for different rivers. I suspect that many of the names of the rivers in Africa actually mean “river” in the local dialect

That’s probably how the Oconaluftee River near the town of Cherokee, NC got its name. [To be continued]