Bill promotes Native American history through NH place names

  • Land off of Water Street that is owned by Morrill Farm in Penacook. GEOFF FORESTER

Associated Press
Published: 1/20/2021 5:13:09 PM

New Hampshire communities would be authorized to rename locations or geographic features in the Abenaki language under a bill aimed at promoting the state’s Native American heritage.

“Land holds a kind of memory that is often expressed through names,” Sen. David Watters told the Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee on Wednesday. “For New Hampshire, it’s an opportunity to recognize this, to enrich our understanding of place history and also the environment, by understanding the presence of Native American names.”

The bill would require the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs to assist communities in determining appropriate names. Kathleen Blake, chairperson of the commission, said the group is pleased the bill has been proposed and appreciates being included. But members have concerns about the language, and the committee agreed to hold onto the proposal to get more input and consider changes.

“I would be very interested in seeing proposed amendments,” Blake said. “We will do what we need to do to process this bill so that it is suitable for all indigenous peoples here in this state.”

Numerous cities, towns and villages already bear names with Native American roots, including Merrimack, Nashua, Ossipee, Sunapee, and Penacook. Many river names do, as well, though under the proposed legislation, the state would retain authority over river and mountain names.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, suggested clarifying the language about how changes would be approved at the town level. She questioned whether a town council or board of selectmen could make a change, or would voters get a say.

“You could have a community at odds,” she said.

Watters, D-Dover, said his bill is in line with what he expects to see at the federal level, given that President Joe Biden has picked Rep. Deb Halland to serve as the first Native American cabinet secretary and head of the Interior Department.

As a congressional member from New Mexico, Halland sponsored a bill to direct the department to establish an “Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names” to examine renaming geographic features with offensive place names.

“We can expect some activities in this area, so the timing really seems to be right to formalize a process where New Hampshire can participate,” Watters said. “I think it would be educational for municipalities, for students and for others. I think it would be an important step in recognizing Native American history and presence in the state.”

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