Toponymy as Guide for Understanding Presence and Absence in the Landscape

Authors: Areti Athanasopoulos*,
Topics: Landscape, Cultural Geography, Geographic Theory
Keywords: Toponymy, landscape, presence, absence, geography, effacement, human geography, Native American, history of place names
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Marshall North, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Place names are signifiers, calling out the shadows of those who came before. In the city of Denver, the absence of the Native American people who once inhabited this landscape is plainly visible everywhere, captured in street signs which dominate the geography of the city. Names like Little Raven and Arapahoe, Wazee and Wewatta, are faint indicators of corporeal forms, and there is a profound ontological disconnect between those names and the people who once embodied them. The names announce their past existence yet say little of their contributions to those places, or of their oft violent effacement. Rather than being an homage or method of remembrance, the very usage of a person’s name on a place can be a tactic to obfuscate details about their violent erasure. Regarding the Native Americans, the pseudo-honor of their names on the places now controlled by others is a wholly inadequate token, and an attempt to obscure the truth about the crimes committed against them. Having robbed them of their land and identity, the assignment of Native American names to places is evidence of the extreme avarice of the white perpetrators. How one responds to this daily encounter of brutality and trauma is fundamental to the understanding of place, and to the formation of one’s self-identity. How presence and absence are represented in situ in our landscapes has powerful ramifications for how that relationship is experienced in visu, and toponymy can give visceral meaning to the concurrence of presence and absence.

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