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National Park History: Renaming National Parks Can Show Respect for Native Cultures


Soldiers are not the only ones honored now at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Photo by
Mark A. Wilson via Wikipedia Commons.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Pu'uhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park, two national parks that celebrate their birthdays in July, were given their present names after their original names were deemed disrespectful to native people. In acknowledging designation mistakes, Congress confirmed that labels are very important and native peoples’ viewpoints should be respected.

President Grover Cleveland issued an executive order on December 7, 1886, establishing the National Cemetery of Custer’s Battlefield Reservation. After being expanded (through addition of the Reno-Benteen Battlefield in 1926), it was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service on July 1, 1940. It was then redesignated Custer Battlefield National Monument on March 22, 1946. Yet another redesignation, this one in 1991, gave the park its present name of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Over on the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, a national park called City of Refuge National Historical Park was authorized on July 26, 1955. A redesignation in 1978 gave the park its present name of Pu'uhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park.

Why did Congress go through the trouble of making these new designations? What was all the fuss about?

To understand these actions it’s necessary to appreciate that our beliefs and attitudes pertaining to native cultures evolve through time. It also makes good sense to bring the names of historical/cultural sites into line with these new realities wherever practicable.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

The preservation and interpretation history of the Little Bighorn site is fascinating. Federal efforts to preserve the site of the June 25, 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn were not born out of a desire to preserve the battlefield per se. Instead, they were undertaken under authority that had been granted to establish national cemeteries for fallen American soldiers. Historic preservation of a large tract at the Little Bighorn battlefield occurred almost by accident, as it were, because the battle was not confined to a single small area and there were still some remains of soldiers in scattered locations.

In his discourse on The Origin and Evolution of the National Military Idea, Robert F. Lee explained that

Formal establishment of the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery took place on August 1, 1879, with issuance of General Orders No. 78, Headquarters of the Army, which also stated that its boundaries would be announced upon completion of a survey. Evidently the survey took several years. One plan contemplated a reservation embracing eighteen square miles but this was subsequently reduced to one square mile. On December 7, 1886, President Grover Cleveland signed an executive order designating the boundaries of the "National Cemetery of Custer's Battlefield Reservation." Unlike other national cemeteries, this one embraced most of the key points of the battlefield, partly because it was clear that not all the remains of fallen soldiers had yet been found. But this designation also added a new note to historic preservation by preserving a battlefield under the general authority granted by Congress to establish national cemeteries.

Whether by accident or not, a battlefield had been preserved. But the site was still essentially a shrine to General George Armstrong Custer and the fallen troopers of his Seventh Cavalry Regiment. As far as the American public was concerned, this was where Custer’s Last Stand had taken place – the awful place where Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse and their savage horde of Lakota (Sioux), Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians had massacred General Custer and the five companies of cavalry under his command. (Though 263 soldiers and attached personnel died with Custer, many troops under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen escaped with their lives.)

The National Park System acquired the National Cemetery of Custer's Battlefield Reservation by transfer from the War Department on July 1, 1940. It was then redesignated Custer Battlefield National Monument on March 22, 1946. This tidied up the site’s name, making it clear that it was now a national park. But the new title perpetuated the basic notion that the site existed as a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry. The Indians were still the bad guys, the perpetrators of one of American history’s most dastardly deeds.

Time passes, beliefs change, attitudes get realigned, and history gets rewritten. Fast forward to 1991. It has been a long struggle, fought mostly in the arena of public opinion, but Native Americans finally get their point across. It was not just Custer’s Last Stand. It was the last stand for the Plains Indians, too. Congress redesignates the park Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The legislation also calls for an “Indian Memorial” placed near Last Stand Hill.

This is the first paragraph of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument’s home page:

This area memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their way of life. Here in 1876, 263 soldiers and attached personnel of the U.S. Army, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer, met death at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

If you walk the Little Bighorn Battlefield today, you will find a melancholy place, a place for somber reflection. You will see white marble markers that show where soldiers fell. But you will also see red granite markers where some of the Indian warriors fell. Lame White Man died here. Noisy Walking died there. Over there and there and there is where Closed Hand, Long Road, and Dog’s Back Bone were killed. There is also a monument to the unknown Lakota warrior, and another that honors the great Oglala Lakota warrior Chief Crazy Horse.

Pu'uhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park

In a bayside location on the Big Island’s Kona Coast, the Pu'uhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park preserves an ancient site of tremendous significance to Native Hawaiian culture. On the premises are coconut groves, royal fishponds, kahua (ancient house site platforms), a reconstruction of the Hale o Keawe temple, temple platforms, ki'i (carved wooden images), ki'i pohaku (petroglyphs), sledding tracks, several thatched structures, various demonstrations and exhibits (such as outrigger canoe construction), and the Ki’ilae village, which offers a glimpse into Hawaii’s past and post-European contact changes in Hawaiian life.

The 420-acre park is divided into two main areas. One is the royal grounds. The other, separated by a massive wall 10 feet high and up to 17 feet thick, is a pu’uhonua, or a sacred place of refuge. There is no more completely restored ancient religious sanctuary in all of Hawaii.

Old Hawaii had a rigid social structure that included ali'i (chiefs), priests, skilled laborers, and commoners. Called kapu, which means “forbidden,” a system of very strict laws, regulations, and taboos applied to each element of this structure and governed every aspect of Hawaiian social interaction.

The chiefs and spiritual leaders wielded enormous power backed by corporal or capital punishment levied for offenses such as eating forbidden foods, entering an area reserved for chiefs, entering certain structures by the wrong door, looking at a chief , casting your shadow on a chief, touching a chief’s hair, etc. Many such offenses were punished by immediate execution.

If you committed a kapu violation punishable by death, or if you were a warrior vanquished by an enemy, you could escape execution by eluding your pursuers and escaping to the nearest pu’uhonua, or place of refuge. There in the pu’uhonua, where it was forbidden to shed blood, and where the bones of ancient chiefs (buried over the span of 250 years) were considered to extend special protection, you could receive absolution from a priest and become eligible to return to the outside world.

The pu’uhonua tradition of forgiveness was maintained until 1819.

On July 26, 1955, the site became a national park designated City of Refuge National Historical Park. Native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) were very disgruntled. They and their political supporters wanted the place to have its Hawaiian name, not a generic Anglo label.

Time passes, beliefs change, attitudes get realigned, and history gets rewritten. Fast forward to the 1970s. The rejuvenation of Native Hawaiian culture is not yet a powerful force on the political scene, but it is gaining some of the traction that Native American (American Indian) tribes achieved through the success of the civil rights and cultural diversity movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

By the late 1970s, Congress was bending to the argument that the name City of Refuge National Historical Park was inherently disrespectful to Native Hawaiian culture. On November 10, 1978, the park was redesignated, becoming Pu'uhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park. The literal translation of Pu'uhonau o Honaunau is "Place of Refuge at Honaunau."

The two other national parks focused on Kona Coast ancient cultural sites also have Hawaiian names. The Pu’ ukohola Heiau National Historical Site, authorized in 1972, has the preserved ruins of Pu’ ukohola Heiau (“Temple on the Hill of the Whale”), a structure built by King Kamehameha I during his rise to power. The Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, which was created in 1978, is a 1,160-acre park that protects and interprets traditional native Hawaiian culture at a site where an ancient Hawaiian settlement existed in the pre-European contact era.


You should of course mention Denali National Park, which was called Mount McKinley until 1980. Denali means "the high one" in the Athabascan language, while McKinley remembers William McKinley, the 25th President.

You make an interesting point, MCR, but at the risk of blowing a fuse on the weaselspeak-o-meter I will point out that Denali is not celebrating a birthday this month like those two other parks are. ;-) Another thing, MCR. Can you tell me why Congress, in its infinite wisdom, managed to redesignate the park to honor the local natives while leaving an eminently forgettable President's name on the very mountain the locals have always called, do call now, and will forever call Denali? Lots of respect being shown there, fur shur.

Wikipedia claims that the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain with the park in 1980, only the U.S. Board of Geographic Names at the USGS kept McKinley on their maps. Congress is not involved in naming geographic features - at least not officially.

And to give the Board of Geographic Names the due credit, they name a whole lot of alternative names in their database:

Another mountain that has recently tried to have its name changed is Mt. Clay in NH. In 2003 the NH State Legislature passed a bill changing the name to Mt. Reagan; however, the USGS won't even consider any feature named after a person until they are dead for 5 years, and even then it is up to them to change it on their maps if they want to. The AMC has already stated they have no plans to change the name of Mt. Clay on any of their maps either.

Talk about the bureaucracy of the American Government...

Gotta love that U.S. Board of Geographic Names. They do a great job of vetting place name changes. My favorite Board decision was the renaming of a western place called Whorehouse Flats, which is now called Naughty Lady Meadow. At least that's the story as it was told to me. I don't want to know the real story, whatever that may be. Can't let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good tale.

Well Bob, please check this link to see if you are right.

As to why the name of the mountain has not been changed to Denali: the Ohio Congressional delegation, home of McKinley, has long objected to the name change. This link provides a good synopsis of the name issue at Denali.

Darn it, MRC. I TOLD you I didn't want to know! :-)

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