In Utah today, we can look around the Salt Lake Valley and point out landmarks. The Great Salt Lake. Millcreek Canyon. The Oquirrh Mountains. But to the Western Shoshone, the Great Salt Lake is Pia-pa or Titsa-pa, meaning “great water” or “bad water.” Millcreek Canyon is Tempin-Tekkoappah, “rock trap.” To the Goshute, the Oquirrhs are called Apa-ya-wi-up, “place of the weeping ancestors.”
These places all had other names before.
During Native American Heritage Month, the University of Utah’s American West Center will highlight the Native names of places in Utah, one each day, on the center’s social media channels.
“Hopefully this will reinforce the understanding that before this was the state of Utah, this was Native land,” says Gregory Smoak, director of the American West Center and associate professor of history. “I hope that it also reinforces the idea that Native peoples are living peoples. I know that sounds a bit odd, but Americans in general tend to think of Native peoples as being somehow locked in the past. But these are living cultures that still maintain their understanding of place names.”
The data for the place names comes from the Native Places Atlas, an ongoing project at the American West Center that restores awareness of Native place names. Here, visitors can explore the Native names for places in Utah and throughout the Intermountain West, organized by linguistic group: Navajo, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Goshute or Ute.
Some of the names are descriptive, such as the Ute name Timpanoquint, or “rock river,” for the Provo River. Sometimes these descriptions indicate something universal about a place. At least four of the names for a pair of buttes in southeastern Utah mean “Bears Ears.”
Others carry information about how a site was used. The Western Shoshone name for Millcreek Canyon, for example, Tempin-Tekkoappeh, means “rock trap,” and refers to a Goshute hunting practice of using the canyon’s rock features to trap game.
“It indicates history,” Smoak says. “It indicates use and knowledge of that place.”
But since the 19th century, most of these place names were lost as non-Native settlers attached new names to places which were subsequently recorded and became part of today’s official United States Geological Survey maps.
“Naming these places was really part of organizing the colonization of the West,” Smoak says. “And so the idea we had was to, in a sense, decolonize the map the West. The Native place names haven’t gone anywhere. There are plenty of them recorded in historical documents and kept by Native peoples.”
The project came about because of a shifting sentiment about place names in the United States, including in Utah. For example, the name of a canyon near Moab was renamed Grandstaff Canyon in 2017, replacing a previous pejorative name. Both the former and current name refer to 19th-century Black cowboy William Grandstaff. But in speaking with Ute tribal elder Forrest Cuch, Smoak was reminded that the canyon had a name long before Grandstaff.
“So I thought it would be very useful to have a map where we started to collect those names,” Smoak says, “where tribes could perhaps participate and, in a sense, assert their history to all Americans.”
Currently, the Native Places Atlas includes place names in seven states, but could certainly grow with cooperation from other tribes and institutions.
“It's not something that's finished and it's not something that may ever be finished,” Smoak says. “If other universities and other peoples get involved, it’s something that could spread across the continent.”
About the American West Center
The U’s American West Center, founded in 1964, is the oldest regional study center in the United States. With a particular focus on Utah’s Native American communities, the American West Center is dedicated to scholarship documenting and exploring Utah’s ethnic and minority communities.
The center conducts contracted applied historical research for clients including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service as well as community-specific projects including treaty rights reports and tribal histories, in close cooperation with leaders and members of Native American tribes.
As a public engagement research center, the American West Center engages graduate students in research that directly benefits Utah’s minority communities. This focus trains graduate students in public engagement, including Smoak who first encountered the center as a graduate student before later returning as its director.
Find the Native Places Atlas here.
Learn more about the American West Center here.