Place Names; An Observation of Culture

My husband and I begin conversations, as we often do, that travel down many highways, side roads and dirt paths. Last night we found ourselves in the land of place names.

I have spent most of my life in the West. Two places rack up the most years: California, where I was born and raised, and the state of Washington, where I have lived for the past 30 years. Both states butt up against the Pacific Ocean, anything but peaceful most seasons, vast but filled with islands, and bordering another continent well out of view. But in the establishment of place names, neither Western state could be more different.

Until the Spanish came on the scene, California was full of culture, speech, religion, families, slave trade and more. These were the natives, numerous tribal enclaves of multiple generations: Quechen, Yuman, Modoc, Miwoc, Pomo. First contact with European culture—Spanish and later Russian—occurred in the mid to late 18th century when Spanish Catholic missionaries stumbled into Southern California and set up shop in the San Diego area. As early as 1818, Russian explorers and merchant men settled along the Northern California Coast.

In Washington, things occurred a little differently.

Both Spain and Britain scouted the area from the sea around the turn of the 19th century. But no true settlement was begun until the mid 19th century when groups started moving north from the Columbia River. After California, oddly enough, Washington catalogs one of the hugest lists of federally recognized Indian tribes. Spokane, Lummi, Yakima, Nisqually, Puyallup.

Now that I have supplied some background and named the original denizens of both states, I’ll get back to place names, focusing first on towns and cities. With the exception of Modoc, for whom a California county is named, there is no Quechen, Yuman, Miqoc or Pomo city. We have Mendocino, Sacramento, San Jose, Carmel, San Luis Obispo and San Clemente. Spanish names all. The early culture was virtually wiped out, not even allowed to give their names to the landscape.

Spokane, Yakima, Nisqually and Puyallup are all tribal names for long-settled cities in Washington. Rivers as well. The Lummi tribe – who donated live salmon and used their boats to assist University of Washington scientists attempt to feed ailing orca J50 – live on Lummi Island in the north sound.

When I started visiting here in 1985, then moved 4 years later, I couldn’t pronounce any of the Washington tribal place names. Growing up in Northern California, I struggled with San Jose, San Joaquin and Vallejo, too. But the interesting thought about all this to me, is how the burden of cultural disapora works on an area. Between these two states, originally populated by groups of similar cultures, there is such a discrepancy between what names are given. The Spanish did such a thorough job of erasing these cultures, that only the place names of their culture survives. In Washington, where such an invasion didn’t occur with the same vigor, the original indigenous names survive.

In Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, world-building is a challenging proposition. To get it right, (beside reading some of the excellent blogs on this here) a lot of thought needs to be lent to history, colonization, and naming conventions. It’s rather easier to pen a near-future dystopian novel whose setting is Las Vegas, say, but rather harder to consider the creation of an entirely new land, whether earthly or on another planet.

We need to know the name of our place. And so do our characters. That is all.

And as a bonus, the Writer Company Keepers are on the job.

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