A Otāēciah (Crane), 2021, view from inside an indigenous sculpture on campus. Photo by Chris Cornelius.
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Over the past several years, there has been a growing movement in this country to address our longstanding racist history. Part of that conversation has been around statues of Confederate and colonial leaders and renaming places with derogatory words in the name.
For example, since 2015, protesters have defaced and torn down statues of figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Spanish colonizer Christopher Columbus. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, the first Native American woman to serve as a federal cabinet secretary, has called for the renaming of locations containing offensive words such as “squ**”, which is an extremely offensive term used for Native American women.
In our state of Wisconsin, 28 geographical features currently use this word, and plans have been announced to change it. Even the names of streets, parks and ski resorts have been changed to reflect a more tolerant and welcoming society and language; to be clear, this is a good thing. Language reflects how we think, and it is important that Native American women and other marginalized people do not see words used to demean them used to name parks, bodies of water and streets. It is important that Black people do not have to walk through their downtowns under the watchful eye of long-dead generals that fought to ensure they’d be enslaved forever.
However, these actions are symbolic, and meaningless if not combined with concrete policy solutions. Renaming a lake on stolen Native land is good, but renaming that lake does not remove the pollutants and carcinogens from the lake, nor does it give the lake back to those whose ancestors it was taken from. Tearing down statues of Confederate traitors does not stop police brutality and mass incarceration against African Americans.
Liberal politicians in big, blue cities will often make symbolic changes like these to seem as if they’re acting on important issues, while they further ignore systemic problems like poverty and racism. In 2020, a section of 16th Street in Washington, D.C. was permanently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by Mayor Muriel Bowser. However, that same mayor is increasing funding for the D.C. Police Department for 2023.
These contradictions do not take away the importance of renaming offensive names. Language truly does reflect thought, and a more inclusive language means a more inclusive culture. Cultural changes are good, and important, because it’s important that people feel like they belong in society. My argument is that cultural changes do not go far enough. While it is important, for instance, that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, that does not directly address the housing needs of homeless queer youth. Nor does renaming a street provide Black Americans with the reparations they’re owed.
Culture and language are important, but we can’t let politicians get away with just doing the bare minimum. We need to demand that the same politicians who tear down statues and rename monuments also provide the material support that these communities need.