Snowflakes – Indigenous place-names

Last week in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, Norway, at the Sámi allaskuvla, the Sámi University College, was the first International Conference on Indigenous Place Names – “Exploring ways to reclaim cultural identity through place names” , beautifully, minutely and intricately organised by Kaisa Rautio Helander. The name ‘Guovdageaidnu/KautoKeino’ illustrates the range of the topic:

  • meaning: in Sámi Guovda ‘what is in between’, Geaidnu ‘road’; in Norwegian, Kautokeino is a name only
  • layering: Kautokeino is the Finnish spelling, now adopted by Norwegians
  • official naming policy: which name to use officially, which name comes first on road-signs

In the spring, a single snowflake melts, joins other snowflakes, becomes a trickle, a stream, a river, a sea – this metaphor with many interpretations is the heart of a poem by an early twentieth century Sámi writer, Pedar Jalvi which Kaisa recited at the start of the conference. You could use it for place-names – one Indigenous place-name on a map doesn’t convincingly show prior occupation/ownership, but thousands do. Or you could take it for this first conference itself – a river of understanding formed from trickles of people from different places – Māori, Zulu, Xaayda Gwaay.yaay (Haida Gwaii), Masai, Shipibo-Konibo, and particularly the Arctic (Sámi, Inuit, Nenets and Veps). They all have reasons to be passionately concerned about the nature, recognition and transmission of place-names.

Each day of the conference started with different Sámi people singing yoik, which, so Mikkel Nils Sara said, often “extol the splendour of relations between land, man and beast”. Yoik also developed in part as a way of keeping contact among tundra dwellers – you can yoik a person – sing their yoik. On the first day, the singer sang the tundra (a word that comes from Sámi, duottar in Northern Sámi) which gives the reindeer food and sang about the conflict with the miners who want to take their land. “And the only thing we can do is sing our beloved land”.

Ideas in the opening speech by Láilá Susanna Vars of the Sámediggi (Sámi parliament) recurred in many of the papers.

[JHS:HT*] Sámi place-names are history, our ancestors’ words, our experiences, memories and stories. They are words and phrases, they are instructions and they are understanding, they are explanations, they are paths, they are journeys. .. Sámi names are our common wealth, our language, our experience, our stories, our knowledge and it is our culture and our memory and our rights and they tell about our belonging to our areas. Our place-names are our future and our children’s heritage. It gives them the feeling they own the area when they know their name, it is their wealth and their language and our ancestors’ instructions going together.

Parallel sessions and a wealth of papers mean I can’t report on all of them. But… a paper I found exciting was Mikkel Nils Sara‘s paper “To Know, Recognize and Describe a Landscape. Examples from Nomadic Reindeer Herding” which showed how place-names in this tundra area stem from the interaction of semi-nomadic reindeer herders with the land. Looking at place-names in the UK, it is easy to see how names grew by reference to agricultural activity (X-field, Y-mill). In Australia rapid settlement and the need to create reference names means we have ended up with place-names that are commemorative (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne) or real estate hype (Paradise) or just evocative (Canberra, since its meaning in the local Aboriginal language is still debated). Sara described other ways people interact with land, in the heartland of the Northern Sámi-speaking people, the dry mountain plateaus where the snow is shallow enough for the reindeer to find winter-food.

Places are not only the obvious rivers and mountains which occur in many specific-generic combinations, but also types of place: resting places, dwelling places, summer retreat from insects, stopping places, hunting grounds. An understanding of how reindeer move and use the land underlies many place-names – a hill which is too steep for reindeer, terrain that is difficult for reindeer, a place which relates to movements of reindeer at certain time of the year, where old female reindeer stay behind. Visibility matters – terrain is described as dark or light; in an area which is dark for part of the year; many rivers cannot be seen in winter and are only recognised by their surroundings. Similes are invoked, involving the colour and texture of reindeer coats at different times of the year.

Sara seemed also to link this to a difference in kinds of knowledge: diehti know, knowledge formed first with words, which can flow from person, content that can be verbalised and transferred, and mahti know how to do. I took this as distinguishing between different aspects of placenames – content which come from knowing what to do with the land, and reference – calling to mind a place for someone else. Place-names are a way for reindeer herders to give locations to each other accurately. These days you can use GPS locations, (and one delegate came across a white reindeer with a GPS locator around its neck). But a place-name still beats a string of numbers for memorability.

Naming a place is not just creating a mnemonic to refer to the place by, or creating a mnemonic that fits into ways of knowing about the country, and into songs (Lyn Carter and Trish Johnston, Singing the land. Using Maori songs (waiata) to verify place and space on the landscape). Naming a place is taken as a political act – if I name it, I am asserting the right to name it, and that can be taken as ownership. Place-names have been, and continue to be, used as evidence of ownership by traditional groups. No wonder Norwegian Sámi resent the late nineteenth century government assertion that “Instead of foreign place names, a Norwegian name should be used”, according to which Sámi placenames are foreign (Kaisa Rautio Helander, The Function of Place Names in Building a Representation. Treatment of Sámi Place Names in Norway as an Example).

Restoring an earlier name is also a political act – Sámi activists wrote Sámi place-names on road-signs, which were then shot at by other people, so Asbjørg Skåden described (Place names being more than names of places. Place names as ethnical, political, cultural and lingual markers). On the other hand, restatement of Saami names on road-signs in northern Finland appears to have aroused little negative reaction (Káre Vuolab-Lohi, Saami Place Names and Road Signs in Finland).

I used ‘earlier’, because in many areas there isn’t a hard-and-fast division between ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Introduced/non-Indigenous’; there is a layering of earlier and later place-names, shown by Jesta Masuku in (The influence of Kalanga on place names in Zimbabwe’s Matopo District: Whose culture, whose values?) and by Peter Raper (Diachronic Toponymic Stratification in Southern Africa) – he argued for a San substrate (including calques of San placenames). Not that this is justification for retaining the place-names of the latest immigrants.

The UN has been active in promoting the study and retention of indigenous and minority names- through the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) and formally, through the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 13.1 Indigenous people have the right to.. designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons. There was some interesting discussion from representatives of various Geographic Names Boards (e.g. Carl Christian Olsen on the Geographical Naming Authority in Greenland and Nobuhle Ndimande-Hlongwa on Standardization of Indigenous Place Names for Towns and Cities in South Africa.

The major focus of the participants was on retention, preserving names which themselves reflect tradition. But there was also some indications of designation. In South Africa, people were arguing for rights to name new suburbs and roads with names from local languages (Gugulethu Mazibuko on Preserving Oral History through the use of Indigenous names in naming KwaZulu-Natal District Municipalities in South Africa). The structure of the new name was sometimes commemorative of people – Barbara Wilson mentioned putting a Xaayda name of her uncle on a mountain.

For many groups struggling against dispossession, ill-treatment and poverty, reinstating earlier place-names may not be a high priority, even though it clearly shows the presence of the Indigenous people and thus makes it hard for the dominant group to avoid recognising the Indigenous people. And even when names are recognised, dispossession still continues -a point made passionately by Navaya ole Ndaskoi, (The Greater Siringet Region was Maasai Rangeland). He described the plight of the Masai whose names are recognised (Siringet/Serengeti), but whose traditional grazing lands have been taken over as wildlife reserves, whose herds and way of life are being destroyed by drought, and who are chased at gunpoint out of the wildlife reserves. Some Masai feel that outsiders value their lives at less than that of a baby rhino.

[JHS:HT] HT I am using as a new symbol for ‘hasty transcription’ – neither direct, nor indirect speech.