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Andrew Fiala on Ethics: Yosemite name debate isn’t that novel

The ongoing debate over place names in Yosemite National Park causes columnist Andrew Fiala to reflect on how names have already changed there. For instance, the natives’ name for the valley was Ahwahnee, and natives called Half Dome “Tis-sa-ack.”
The ongoing debate over place names in Yosemite National Park causes columnist Andrew Fiala to reflect on how names have already changed there. For instance, the natives’ name for the valley was Ahwahnee, and natives called Half Dome “Tis-sa-ack.”

The name changes in Yosemite National Park show us the power of corporations in our country. The longer story of those names discloses a history of political force and economic interest.

Names are powerful. They shape the human world. Names are focal points for struggles over money, identity and meaning.

While we might wax nostalgic about Yosemite’s trademarked landmarks and rue the intrusion of capitalism into the Sierra heartland, businesses have been making money in Yosemite for over a century.

Yosemite opened for business under the Curry Company in the 1890s. Camp Curry changed its name to Curry Village in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the Delaware North Company took over. Somewhere along the way, DNC claimed ownership of the names of the hotels, including The Ahwahnee.

Behind that recent history is another story of expropriation and exploitation. The word “Ahwahnee” was the native name for the valley. The native Ahwahnechee people were forcibly removed from the region by the Mariposa Battalion in the 1850s. The Battalion renamed the place “Yosemity.” A member of the Battalion explained that the spelling was changed to make the word look more “scholarly” – but also harder to pronounce.

Names are powerful and mysterious. We affix them to people and places through elaborate christening ceremonies. We change them for a variety of purposes.

In some cultures, names are thought to connect people and things to spiritual and magical power. Fairy tales such as Rumplestiltskin remind us of the sorcery of names.

Name changes often reflect spiritual transformation. The Bible is full of spiritual name changes: Abram became Abraham, and Simon became Peter. A cardinal adopts a new name when he becomes Pope. And so on.

The spiritual view of names seems old-fashioned. We tend to view names as human conventions. They are created for our convenience and changed according to our interests and desires.

The names of drugs and other products are created by marketing wizards, interested in money instead of magic. Names are changed in order to maximize market share. Bruno Mars, Cher, David Bowie and other celebrities have changed their names for the entertainment market.

Similar market forces are driving the name changes in Yosemite. In our capitalist culture, corporations own names and demand payment for them. We sell naming rights to objects and put corporate logos on things. We no longer connect names with spiritual power; instead we sell them to the highest bidder.

Naming and renaming are acts of power. Names reflect cultural values and structures of dominance. Only the powerful are authorized to name or rename things.

For centuries wives have taken their husbands’ last names. That tells us a lot about the patriarchal structures of family life. But that naming convention is changing. In the era of Caitlyn Jenner’s name and gender change, our assumptions about family and the order of things is in flux.

Names shape our personalities. They color our perception of the world. They reflect changing political reality. And they resonate with meaning.

The best names are poetic. “El Capitan” stirs the spirit. “Bridalveil Fall” fills the imagination. But the name “Half Dome” is frankly a bit disappointing in its prosaic obviousness. If San Francisco were called “Peninsula City,” would that be a place to leave your heart?

Natives called Half Dome “Tis-sa-ack.” That name honors a legendary woman, whose crying profile appears on Half Dome’s face. Most don’t notice her at first. But when you hear her name and story, you suddenly see her weeping face on the cliff, gazing across the valley at her husband. Names open vistas, which are previously unseen.

Last year, Mount McKinley was officially renamed Denali, returning the mountain to its native name. That’s a noble and nostalgic gesture. Perhaps Half Dome should again be called Tis-sa-ack and Ahwahnee should be returned to the natives.

But Ahwahnee is a brand name and the natives have been destroyed. History is turbulent, fluid and often sad. You can’t go home again. Nor can you return to your original name.

The natural world is, of course, indifferent to our shifting nomenclature. Tis-sa-ack will endure long after our names are forgotten. From her perspective, our squabbles must provide another reason to weep.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: