Indigenous place names are not merely location names. They have power. They speak stories. Indigenous place names invoke ancestral memories and rekindle the sound of ceremonies into our souls. Indigenous place names and geographies are narratives of histories, struggles, and claims.
Some argue that nations themselves are communities held together by common narratives and symbols. So restoring indigenous place names is an act of reclaiming a narrative and completing the return of land while re-affirming our sense of place and sovereignty.
It is also an act of reclaiming the voice of our ancestors as place names restore the use of indigenous languages long suppressed.
While Indigenous peoples, including Kānaka Maoli, seek the return of their lands, they also seek the restoration of indigenous place names and geography. Some may view restoring a place name without returning the land as merely symbolic or even performative. Regardless, indigenous place names help to restore connections to narratives. Whose narration is listened to and whose narrative is followed preceeds the right to claim the land and decide its future.
There is a term for the colonial practice of renaming the lands of Indigenous people: toponymic subjugation. Another, less formal term is “name stripping.”
The process of toponymic subjugation of indigenous geographies in the Pacific began when Ferdinand Magellan stumbled upon Guåhan (Guam) in 1521. Using the “Doctrine of Discovery,” Magellan laid claim over the island and promptly renamed it.
For the next four centuries, other colonial powers copied this pattern and proceeded to redraw, remap, and rename indigenous lands around the Pacific creating maps that erased indigenous geographies and entire identities. Native peoples became strangers in their own homelands and were forced to identify themselves way colonizers dictated. They were internally displaced.
Indigenous place names were deliberatelty replaced with place names influenced by the European homelands of the colonists, either their location experience, or by honorific eponyms derived from captains, politicians, patrons, and monarchs in Europe.
Just as they did in Turtle Island (North America) and elsewhere, Western explorers systemically shaped a mythical narrative in which the vast lei of islands of the Pacific were “terra nullius” or “empty lands” ready for colonization, exploitation, and European settlement.
Of course, these lands were never actually empty. They were home to our ancestors.
Even when indigenous place names were known, European cartographers (map makers) ignored them. Adelbert von Chamisso, a naturalist on the Russian scientific ship Riurik commanded by Otto von Kotzebue in the 1820s, in remarking on the Indigenous people of the Ralik islands, “…we call most of these people and tribes, mentioned by us, by names which they did not give themselves, but which were imposed upon them by strangers.”
The Ralik Islands are an island chain in what is now called the “Marshall Islands.” In 1788, a British Naval Captain, John William Marshall, happened to sail through the area on route to Australia. Captain Marshall named the islands after himself.
All over the Pacific, indigenous place names were discarded because ship captains or cartographers found them too difficult to pronounce – so they simply renamed them.
Examples include Pohnpei which was renamed “Ascension” in honor of a holiday. Rapa Nui was renamed “Easter Island” after another holiday. Aotearoa was renamed “New Zealand” after the Dutch province of Zeeland. Isatabu was renamed “Guadalcanal” after a town in Spain.
Islands were sometimes renamed multiple times when control of land was passed from one colonial power to another. Kosrae was called “Strong’s Island” in the 19th century by an American captain after a governor of Massachusetts. It was later renamed “Kusaie” under the Japanese.
This also happened in Hawaiʻi where Captain James Cook tried to rename our islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. Despite the fact that the Hawaiian Kingdom never adopted the name, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom continued to use “Sandwich Islands” on their maps and other documentation for the better part of the 19th century.
Toponymic subjection in Hawai’i continues to manifest itself in the naming of towns, subdivisions, high schools, beaches, and monuments.
Samuel Kamakau and other prominent Kānaka Maoli scholars of the 19th century directly attributed to Captain Cook the introduction of diseases to Hawaiʻi that would eventually decimate the Kānaka Maoli population, killing 80% of our people. Yet the area of Kaʻawaloa on Hawaiʻi Island was nevertheless renamed “Captain Cook” after the Captain Cook Sugar Company opened a post office there in the early 1900s.
Lēʻahi is the name of Waikīkī’s famous landmark, yet it is called “Diamond Head” today only because Western explorers mistook calcite crystals for diamonds in the late 1700s. Mokuʻumeʻume, an ancient fertility site, is now called “Ford Island” after a previous landowner. Maunalua has a storied name but was renamed “Hawaiʻi Kai” after the developer Henry Kaiser. Kaʻōhao was renamed “Lanikai” in the 1920s by developer Charles Frazier who purchased 300 acres there.
Also in the 1920s, complaints that it was difficult to pronounce Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani School prompted officials to instead give the school the generic non-descript name “Central Middle School.” The staff and community did the pono thing in 2021 and restored the honor of their school by renaming it Keʻelikōlani Middle School
As we move forward to reclaim our voice as the Poʻe Hawaiʻi ʻŌiwi, restoring our ancestral place names is an important part of reclaiming our lands and our narration. They hold our truths.
ʻŌlelo (language), moʻolelo (stories/history), inoa wahi (place names), mēheuheu (cultural behaviors), ʻike (cultural wisdom), and wahi pana (storied places) are integral parts of our paʻi aʻa moʻomeheu or cultural root system planted by our ancestors millennia ago and left to sustain us but we must continually plant and deepen these roots for the generations to come.