A “New” Name for Clingmans Dome? Cherokee Tribal Council Votes to Restore Native Moniker

Tribe will submit petition for renaming to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Photo: George Rose / Contributor via Getty

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Update, July 18: The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ tribal council has voted in favor of changing Clingmans Dome’s name back to its Cherokee name, Kuwahi.

In a resolution passed on Thursday, the council stated that the decision to rename the peak to Clingmans Dome had shown a lack of respect for the Cherokee.

“From time immemorial, the landscape, including the mountains and streams, has shaped our history as Cherokee people,” the council stated.

Next, the measure’s backers will prepare a petition to rename the peak and submit it to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has the authority to standardize the names of features on federal land.

Original Post: An upcoming vote from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal council could be the first step towards changing Clingmans Dome’s name back to its pre-settler name: Kuwahi, or “Mulberry Place.” 

Renaming Clingmans Dome would mark a major change for the peak, the tallest peak on the Appalachian Trail at  6,643-feet in elevation and the third tallest peak on the eastern seaboard after Mount Washington and Mount Mitchell. Situated in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome is a popular destination for thru-hikers and daytrippers alike.

Its current name, however, has a much murkier history. Geologist Arnold Guyot gave the peak its best-known moniker in 1859 after Thomas Clingman, a U.S. senator turned Confederate general who played a significant role in settlers’ efforts to survey the region. Clingman, however, had no affiliation with the Cherokee people and was publicly racist. As for Guyot, he published a manuscript that drew parallels between topography, geography and “the superiority of certain races.”

“The history of the renaming of Kuwahi to ‘Clingmans Dome’ shows that the name of Clingman was designated by a proponent of scientific racism (Guyot) on behalf of an avowed racist (Clingman), in an action that was disrespectful to Cherokee people, culture, history and tradition,” the tribe’s resolution reads.

According to the proposal’s backers, restoring the mountain’s original name wouldn’t serve to bury its history, but to make amends. 

“The name Clingman is not derogatory in and of itself, but the history shows the act of changing the name of Kuwahi to Clingmans Dome was racist and the racist action should be acknowledged and corrected,” they said.

Clingmans Dome is a sacred location to the Cherokee people, and has historically been used as a place of prayer and reflection. The mountain also appears in Cherokee lore. Behind the call to change the mountain’s name back to its native name are two women: Levita Hill and Mary “Missy” Crowe belong to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We understand that it’s going to be a tedious process and a fight,” Hill told The One Feather last month. “What this resolution does, it’s not saying ‘grant the name change’, it’s saying ‘support our action as we take the steps to attempt to address the proper channels that we can do this’.”

Even if the resolution passes, it would only be a first step: Officially finalizing the name change would require the support of the National Park Service, the community, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. But the tribal council vote could provide the momentum that the movement needs to get started.

Renaming Clingmans Dome would be the latest instance in a series of recent name changes for popular geographic features. Last month, Yellowstone National Park changed Mount Doane’s name to the First Peoples Mountain. In 2015, former President Obama officially changed America’s tallest peak’s name from “Mt. McKinley”  to “Denali,” which is the Athabascan name for the peak. But many of America’s most popular destinations still retain their non-native names, like the Grand Canyon, which was originally called “Ongtupqa” by the Hopi tribe, Mount Rushmore, which was named “The Six Grandfathers” by the Sioux people, and Mount Washington, which was once called “Agiocochook” by the Abenaki people. 

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