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UW-Milwaukee Associate Dean for Humanities discusses why Indigenous names matter

Milwaukee City Engineer's Department
Milwaukee Historical Society

Identity loss throughout history can happen in many ways - from being physically driven out of your homeland, to colonization and even through changes to maps. Looking at some of Wisconsin’s oldest cities before and after colonization reveals a loss for native peoples, particularly name changes.

Margaret Noodin, associate dean for humanities at UW-Milwaukee, says that remembering and reclaiming Indigenous names for places can be a way to heal — something that is especially important in Wisconsin where the relationship to Indigenous history can often seem hollow or tenuous.

"For instance that lake was also called laq de illinois, michigame, laq da fan. So you have a number of names that were used for the same place, and depending on who claimed that place as theirs the name changed,” says Noodin when speaking about Lake Michigan.

When talking about the erasure of Indigenous history in the Milwaukee area, Noodin emphasizes that it’s important to acknowledge just how many different groups of people lived in Milwaukee in order to comprehend how vast the Indigenous history in this area is.

Noodin talks about how Europeans coming to present-day Wisconsin often used maps to cultivate the cultural change that now defines how we perceive Milwaukee and Indigenous history.

“I think what you see as you move toward the 1700s is an escalation that became problematic for a lot of nations … when you look at early maps like the 1612 map by Samuel De Champlain, you start seeing names that are familiar in French take the place of some Indigenous names,” says Noodin.

As for the lasting impact of those name changes, Noodin says it was simply the start of a forced assimilation that fundamentally altered all aspects of Indigenous culture, society and identity. It's something she says Indigenous people are still grappling with today.

“People in recent years have have talked a lot about historic trauma, about decolonization and all of these ways to look at how sudden change can cause people not to be who they are or do what they do,” says Noodin. “If someone comes along and gives a new name to a place it's hard to remember what happened there.”

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Beck Andrew Salgado was a producer with Lake Effect.
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