Symbolism Over Substance?

I am fortunate to live in Olympia, Washington in the upper lefthand corner of the (dis)United States. This morning I did one of my fave runs. To Priest Point Park, a loop of the heavily wooded east-side trail, and back, 7.5 miles for those keeping score at home. Now I’m sitting at my desk looking alternatively at my computer monitor and Budd Inlet, the southernmost part of the Puget Sound, a series of saltwater inlets that are, in essence, a bucolic part of the Pacific Ocean.

But did I really run to Priest Point Park and am I really sitting above Budd Inlet? Indigenous groups are succeeding in renaming places based upon their history. Now, Budd Inlet is more appropriately called the Salish Sea and the Olympia City Council is in the process of renaming Priest Point Park, Squaxin Park, after the Squaxin island tribe, who lived here first.

I am down with the updating, but I wonder about a potentially subtle, unconscious even, unintended consequence. What if we think land acknowledgement in the form of updated place names is sufficient and stop short of more substantive changes that would both honor Indigenous people’s history and improve their life prospects?

Of course it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can and should be both/and, but we seem prone to superficial, fleeting acts that are often “virtue signaling“. We change our blog header to Ukraine’s flag, we put “Black Lives Matter” stickers on our cars, and otherwise advertise our politics in myriad ways, but we don’t always persevere. With others. Over time. To create meaningful change.

What is the state of the Black Lives Matter movement? How much attention will the media and public be paying to authoritarianism in Eastern Europe a year or five from now?

Admittedly, that’s a cynical perspective, but I prefer skeptical. I’m skeptical that substituting the Salish Sea for Budd Inlet and Squaxin Park for Priest Point Park will do anything to protect salmon, extend educational opportunities for Indigenous young people, educate people about our Indigenous roots, or improve Indigenous people’s lives in the Pacific Northwest more generally.

In fact, I wonder if it may, in an unfortunate paradoxical way confound those things. I hope not.

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