Okmulgee by Any Other Name

Aside from the constitutionality of a president changing a law passed by Congress, it doesn’t bother me that Mount McKinley is now supposed to be called Denali. It should be a matter for Alaskans, and since I’m not one, what they call their mountains is none of my business. Of course, the usual suspects are playing this up like the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s no surprise that CNN ran a Katia Hetter opinion piece that calls for restoring landmarks to the Indians’ names. And here I did a face palm, and thought about Okmulgee.

For those unfamiliar with it, Okmulgee is a town in Oklahoma, on Okmulgee Creek, some ways south of Tulsa and west of Muscogee. Okmulgee comes from Muskogean meaning “boiling water.” A nice Creek Indian place name, except for a wee problem: The Creeks didn’t hail from Oklahoma. Like the Cherokee and the other Five Civilized Tribes, the Creeks made this part of the Midwest their home courtesy of 19th Century treaties with the US government. Before that, the area was the home of the Osage Indians, who had a different language. When the Creeks, Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw arrived, they did like everyone else and started naming things to their liking. That included reusing names from their old home.

You can see this on a map of the Southeastern US. By the time of English colonization, the Creeks stretched across most of Georgia and Alabama. In Georgia we find the Ocmulgee River, and there’s Oakmulgee Creek in Alabama. All three; Okmulgee, Ocmulgee, and Oakmulgee; are variant spellings of the same name. Just like English settlers gave familiar names to places, so did the relocated Creeks. I don’t know what the Osage called that stream, but I doubt it was Okmulgee Creek.

It’s well and good to want to change place names back to their Indian versions, but which ones? If you look at old maps and read the old accounts, you see how names change. The Ocmulgee in Georgia was also called by various spellings of Ochese. Both are Indian names. If we’re all in a fever to give things their Indian place names, which one do we use? The territories of the Indian tribes were in flux long before the Europeans arrived, just as European tribes were for centuries. And, just as Cambridge is no longer called Duroliponte, many places in America are no longer called by their old names. Just ask a resident of Terminus, Georgia. Yes, Walking Dead fans, there was a real Terminus, Georgia, though one with much different cuisine. You know it better as Atlanta. Even Paris was once Lutetia.

Names change for the same reason they always do. Sometimes it’s to honor someone or something, but more often it’s simply out of convenience. I seriously doubt Denali is the only Indian name ever to grace Mount McKinley since the first humans walked the Land Bridge or paddled across from Siberia, just as I doubt it will be called Denali forevermore.

All which seems lost on those who praise such things, just as they appear oblivious to the constitutional question. They can return names to the “Indian” version all they please, but it doesn’t alter that place names have changed before and will again. If it makes them happy, they can celebrate calling Mount McKinley Denali, but in won’t mean much in the long run.

The Chinese will probably change it, anyway.