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  • Indigenous Place-Names in (Post)colonial Contexts:The Case of Ubmeje in Northern Sweden
  • Daniel Andersson


Postcolonial societies around the world still struggle with lingering colonial structures,1 among them the many official place-names on maps, signs, and in various registers and databases that have largely replaced Indigenous names. In the wake of strengthened minority policy globally, many Western countries today are striving to mend some of the damage that colonial place-naming practices have done, by acknowledging precolonial names and helping to revitalize their usage. However, as place-names are connected to issues of identity and power, especially in plurilingual and multicultural areas, such processes often become complicated.

The purpose of this study, then, is to illuminate the meanings and functions of Indigenous place-names in postcolonial settings. It does so through a case study of the proposed implementation of the Ume Sámi name Ubmeje as an additional official name for the city of Umeå in northern Sweden. [End Page 104]

Indigenous Place-Names in Postcolonial Contexts

To make Indigenous place-names official often means including them on road signs and other place markers, that is, increasing their presence in the linguistic landscape. As discussed by Rodrigue Landry and Richard Y. Bourhis (1997, 25–9) and later, for example, by Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter (2006), linguistic landscapes have two basic functions: an informative function that tells about the sociolinguistic situation in a specific place, and an often emotively charged symbolic function. The former serves to inform what languages are used in a place and the relationships they share, for example, that a dominant language in society also dominates the linguistic landscape. The latter, symbolic function, includes the signals that the linguistic landscape sends to groups of people; for example, the presence of one's own language in the linguistic landscape positively influences that group's language and identity.

Kaisa Rautio Helander, who writes about Sámi place-names in Sápmi, comments on the functions of Sámi place-names as part of the linguistic landscape, emphasizing that they strengthen the position of the language in an official domain, have a positive effect on the status of minority languages, and promote the idea of a multilingual and multicultural society. According to Helander, Sámi place-names in the linguistic landscape also positively influence standardization and aid revitalization processes and visual language learning (Helander 2015, 112).

A recurring theme in the literature on Indigenous place-names in postcolonial contexts is identity. Lawrence D. Berg and Robin A. Kearns, for example, in a study of voices opposing three suggested name changes in Aotearoa/New Zealand in 1989, state that responses to changes from European to Maori names "are indicative of an explicit cultural politics of identity" and that this politics "is inextricably bound up with 'race,' class and gender politics" (2009, 32). Laura Kostanski explores the idea of toponymic identity based on an analysis of the process of replacing colonial names with Indigenous ones in Victoria, Australia (2009; 2014; 2016). She illustrates that people link place-names to the history of a place and that place-names have the power to both highlight and silence histories. Her data also illustrate that people want place-names to reflect their view of contemporary [End Page 105] society, but also that place-names can influence society. The many emotive reactions in Kostanski's data to the suggested name changes emphasize the political aspects of place-naming, and she interprets them in light of power relations: those with power before the name changes expressed negative emotive reactions, while those lacking power reacted positively (Kostanski 2014, 286).

Colonial renaming violently severs the colonized people's connections to places (Smith 1999, 51), and restoring precolonial names is not a straightforward process. The two previous examples, from Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia, demonstrate that majority societies can have difficulty accepting such name changes. As Catherine Nash illustrates, with Ireland as an example, such name processes can also become problematic if they rest upon essentialist ideas of the precolonial culture as pure and homogenous—and the notion that such a culture is retrievable. She writes: "Other ethnicities are edited...


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