The Study of Place Names

The study of place names plays an important role in linguistic, archaeological and historical research, and has a distinguished past. As an interdisciplinary study, place names research takes into account historical, folkloristic, linguistic, geographical and ethnological data. Place names thus reflect not only physical characteristics of the place, but also characteristics of the people who lived there. They may "provide insights into cultures' linguistics, histories, habitats, and spatial and environmental perceptions," according to Stephen C. Jett, who analyzed Navajo place names in the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Place names are sometimes the sole remainders of long-lost languages, the only vestiges of past inhabitants. (Olmert) They often long outlive the people who gave the place the name, and so the original significance of the name may be lost.

Sometimes place names evolve, through a succession of different peoples who modify the name. An example of this is Lily Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Named after Lily Lake, the name has been spelled Lillie, Lilly, Lily and Lilie, and has referred to present Twin Sisters, Gianttrack and Lily Mountains. The name Lillie might refer to an engineer who used to live in the Park, while Lily or Lilly refers to the botany of the area. The Colorado Geographic Board eventually settled on the name Lily and applied it to the present Lily Mountain. The north fork of the Colorado River is another interesting example of place name evolution. Originally called Coyote Creek (Arapaho=Koo'ohwuu Niicihehe') by the Arapaho, the name was changed to the Grand River and then to the name of the entire river: the Colorado River. Three different people groups had an influence in this name: the Arapaho, the Spanish (Colorado in Spanish means "rusty red color") and the whites.

Sometimes the original names disappear entirely from usage, saved only through written or oral recording. Such is the case with many of the Arapaho place names in Colorado and Wyoming. Although some, like the Never Summer Mountains in north-central Colorado (Arapaho=Niiciibiicei'i) continue to be called by the English translation of the Arapaho name, many have been replaced.

Arapaho Place Names

In 1914 three Arapahos visited Rocky Mountain National Park for a geographic expedition. They traveled the park for about two months, during which they shared their experiences and recollections from their youth growing up in this area and gave the Arapaho names for places throughout the park. This information, collected by Oliver Toll, has provided a wealth of information about the lives of these Indians. The place names reflect a close relationship with the land and nature, giving insight into the flora and fauna of the region and the resources used by the Arapaho. They also give information about the relationship of the Arapaho with other tribes.

Linguistic Structure

The Arapaho place names fall into two categories based on their linguistic structure: modified nouns and verbs. Some examples of this are:

Verbs Modified Nouns
They-are-2-mountains (Longs Peak) Child-trail (Trail Ridge)
Where-it is-circular (Estes Park) Still Lake (Mills Lake)
Lumpy-mountain-it is (Lumpy Ridge) Big Lake/Spirit Lake (Grand Lake)
Man where-sit-he (Old Man Mountain) Bear river (South fork Colorado river)
When/where-around-camp lake-at (Camp Lake) Ant-lodges (Grays and Torreys)

An interesting feature of Arapaho place names is that the typical order of nouns and noun modifiers is reversed. For example,

Mountain where-find-we bear

is the normal syntactic structure for "The mountain where we find/found bears."

Bear where-found-it

is the syntactic structure for the place name

Ways of Naming

The Arapaho appear to have named sites in four different ways:

1. Description: based on obvious physical characteristics or plants or animals found there


Beavers when/where-many-they (Cabin Creek)
Where circle-it is (Estes Park)
Where-smokes-it (Specimen Mountain)

2. Location: in relation to another place


North-located-they (mountains north of the Mummy Range)
Exactly in the middle-mountain-it is (Mt. Craig)
Three-mountain-they are (Estes Cone and Wind River Cliffs)

3. Events: either human or mythological, in reference to battle, unusual happenings or everyday activities


Bear on top-up-chase (passive)-he (Steep Mountain)
Wolf-men fort-at (Arapaho Peak)
Spirit Lake (Grand Lake)

4. Resources: places where plants, medicine, etc. could regularly be found


Blue paint-where-gather-we (Blue River)
Tallow/animal fat-river (South Platte)
Tepee poles-(posess)-we (Where we get tepee poles)

There seem to be patterns in how geographic features are named. Mountains are
consistently given names that are based on description or location, especially
description of their appearance. There are also a few places named for events,
especially mythological ones. Lakes and rivers are named more on the basis of
animals found there, resources, or everyday events such as camping, carving
pipes, gathering food, etc. Battles are also a source of names. Resources include
animal fat, tepee poles, ceremonial paint, etc. It is clear that this pattern
reflects the fact that the Arapaho spent more time in the lower elevations among
lakes and river valleys than in the high mountains. The places in higher elevations
were also given names, but these had much more to do with their appearance than
with what happened there. They were probably seen more often from a distance
and used as landmarks than anything else. Also, there is mythology associated
with three sites in the mountains, showing that the Arapaho may have had a religious
reverence or sacredness for these sites which were probably visited less frequently.
Mountains had an importance in symbolism in embroidered and painted designs.
There are quite a few symbols used to represent mountains, far more than for
lakes, rivers, or other features of the land. Symbols also represent many aspects
of mountains, i.e. mountains with trees, snow-covered mountains, and mountain

Now what?

Today many of the original Arapaho place names have been lost, replaced by
other names. This is only one part of a gradual process called language shift
in which the Arapaho language is being replaced by English. Only a few Arapaho
names stand intact today: Onahu, Tonahutu, Kawuneeche, and Niwot are a sampling.
Some translations of the Arapaho are still in use as well: Never Summer, Lumpy Ridge, etc.
With the loss of these names comes a loss of understanding of this culture and way of life.

Although at present Rocky Mountain National Park gives little indication of
who it was that used to live here and many of the millions of visitors to the
national parks leave not even knowing that these were Indian lands, the Park
is now trying to include Native Americans more. Sally McBeth, a cultural
anthropologist from the University of Northern Colorado, has begun to work
with the Park Service toward including indigenous history and concepts in the
national parks. Goals of this project include preserving some of the 700
archaeological sites (some sacred), providing public cultural interpretation
to inform the public of the Indians that used to live here, and collecting and
documenting information on the landscape, natural resources and place names.
In order to do this, they will bring members of the Arapaho tribe as well as
other tribes into the Park to regain familiarity with the area. They anticipate
working closely with tribal peoples. As McBeth put it, "the past is a scarce resource."

The Arapaho have also shown enthusiasm for returning to their traditional homelands
in Colorado. For them, finding a name is equivalent to "claiming a site,"
and many of the sites in Colorado have a sacredness. These places are still
meaningful and have retained their sacredness even after the tribe left the
area. In many places they have left the remains of their ancestors and sacred
sites where they prayed and gathered medicine. The Arapaho recognize that place
names ARE history. They are now trying to reclaim sites and memorialize them.
In 1999 President Clinton signed legislation authorizing the establishment of
the Sand Creek National Historic Site, which was a victory for the Arapaho tribe.
In the summer of 2001 many Northern Arapaho tribal members made a symbolic return
to their ancestral homelands in Colorado. Said one of the elders, "It's a good feeling to be here.
We are still tied to the land and proud to come back to Colorado."