When Jeffery Darensbourg moved to New Orleans several years ago, one of the first things he did was look up the city’s Indigenous name. A writer, researcher, and enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, Darensbourg grew up in Baton Rouge and, while his birth certificate identifies him as “Negro,” he is Creole. But people usually assume he’s white. Some of his ancestors lived here in what is now called the United States, while others came from Europe and Africa. He’s traced his last name to a forebear named Karl von Arensberg (later changed to Charles D’Arensbourg), a man “of Swedish, German, Polish, Jewish extraction” who came from what is now Szczecin, Poland to Louisiana in 1722. His son later married a Native woman. For a guy who says he’s ethnically “a mixture of things,” Darensbourg’s adopted hometown has a fitting name.
“It took me 10 minutes online, and I found it in the first ever Choctaw dictionary by Allen Wright, who was a Choctaw chief in the 19th century.” Before the French founded the city in 1718, naming it after Phillip II, the Duke of Orléans (a man who, Darensbourg says, never set foot in the city), the area was called Bulbancha. But while many Indigenous place names reference sensory experience, the most defining characteristic of Bulbancha, it would seem, was human interaction. The name nods to the mixing of cultures, the languages spoken by the area’s many residents—tribes including the Biloxi, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica, among others, who often communicated in a bridge language, Mobilian Jargon—and economic exchange facilitated by wetlands that served as transit routes for trappers and traders.
In 2014, Darensbourg and his friend, the artist Ozone504, started engaging in what they call “one-word activism,” a project that eventually drove them to revive use of the name Bulbancha. But it wasn’t until 2018, when New Orleans celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding, that their ideas started gaining traction. As a counter-narrative to the tricentennial, they created a zine to celebrate Indigenous culture in the area, both today and thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Their efforts suggest a broader look at Indigenous naming and the power it holds in reconciling with our past and celebrating the real, and complex, diversity within our communities today.
What’s In a Name?
In Indigenous cultures, “place names tend to describe whatever is uniquely memorable about a particular place,” says Margaret Wickens Pearce (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a geographer and artist whose Mississippi Dialogues project is creating an Indigenized map of flooding on the Mississippi River. “That may be what is sensed (smelled, heard, seen, tasted) or what we’re obligated to do there (gather berries, look for eggs, wait for the tide) or what happened there (treaty signing place, starving place, dance grounds), and so on.”
Beyond that, they convey history, a connection to ancestors, the earth, and other beings. “Place names remind us of our obligations to each other and our relatives,” she emails. “Place names specify Indigenous rights and responsibilities on land and water. Place names are our ancestors’ speech. When we say them and visit those places, we activate and ruminate on their guidance. Place names are our identities.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the power we ascribe to names (including my own), but my interest in the naming of places was sparked only recently by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, bryologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and by recents events here in Minneapolis. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes of the “honorable harvest” and our “covenant of reciprocity” with nature, which gifts us our food. “Understand that the lives we are taking are the lives of generous beings, of sovereign beings, and in order to accept their gift we owe them at least our attention. To care for them we must know what they need and, at the very minimum, we should know their names. It’s a sign of respect and connection to learn the name of someone else, a sign of disrespect to ignore it.” And in Gathering Moss, she writes about the importance of knowing the scientific names of plants: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
And seeing clearly is key to Indigenous naming, explained Dr. Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux Dakota) in a 2019 TEDx talk. “Our language is very visual,” she says. “Usually place names are not political. Usually places aren’t named after people. They’re usually descriptive, to describe the history or the connection to a place.”
And today in order to include people who have been excluded from that master narrative, in order to be inclusive of us, we must create spaces where we can create our own stories. We must think about: Who do we honor? What legacies do we want to honor? And what’s our own legacy going to be? What do we want people to remember about us? But not only that, how do we create a space where the legacies of our children are able to continue, where they can make their own mark? How do allow space for them? Naming and honoring is meant to unify, not exclude and divide.
While Darensbourg and Ozone504 can be credited with bringing the name Bulbancha to the lips of so many in New Orleans, it’s thanks to Beane—along with twin sister Carly Bad Heart Bull, father Syd Beane, and many supporters—that people in my city speak the Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake), every day. For more than 100 years, Minneapolis’s largest lake was called Lake Calhoun, named after a man who, like New Orleans’s namesake, reportedly never visited the state. As US Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun ordered the construction of Fort Snelling on land near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1818. This area, known to Dakota people as Bdote (“where two waters come together”), has bittersweet distinctions: it’s the birthplace of the Dakota people and the center of Dakota cultural and spiritual life; it’s also the place where, following the US-Dakota War of 1862, nearly two thousand Dakota women and children were held in a concentration camp (some 300 of whom died there) before being expelled from the state.
Calhoun’s name, to Beane’s point, wasn’t one with a legacy of unity but division. His ideas for the treatment of Native people, first shared in 1818, set the groundwork for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to atrocities against Native people, including the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Cherokee people from their homeland. Additionally, a slave owner and avid segregationist, he characterized slavery in an 1837 speech not as “an evil,” but as “a good—a positive good,” one that benefited, in his logic, all involved.
“The names were changed in order to assert power over us, to claim the land, and to disconnect us from our ancestral homeland,” Beane says. “To sever our ties.”
A revival in the use of Indigenous place names has grown in tandem with related Indigenous rights movements, and momentum seems to be building. In October 2020, 14 US states and 130 cities officially commemorated Indigenous People’s Day in addition to or instead of Columbus Day. Last July, the Washington professional football team announced plans to “retire” its racist team name. In December, the Cleveland Indians promised to change its name as a way to “better unify our community.” And here in Minnesota, a judge ruled early last month that Mike Forcia, a member of the American Indian Movement and enrolled citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, would avoid jail for leading the effort to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in June. In lieu of a felony conviction, Forcia was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. In a statement, Ramsey County District Attorney Sarah Cory acknowledged “that the violence, exploitation, and forced assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated from colonial times into modern times. And the trauma resulting from it is still present. The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized and unknown to the dominant culture. I also recognized that the legal process, of which I am a part of, is reflective of the perspectives of the dominant culture.”
New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3000
In his research, Darensbourg found plenty of documentation of the name Bulbancha (also spelled Balbancha): in addition to its inclusion in Wright’s A Chahta Lexikon (1880), it appears in the region’s first history book, Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane (1758). And it appears as an identifier for a river in Alexandre de Batz’s 1735 painting Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations, the earliest known European depiction of Native people.
But when he first started talking to scholars about it, he was taken aback. When he asked a staffer about Bulbancha at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2014, “the librarian who helped me said, ‘Oh, there was nothing here before colonization. It was just a swamp,’ which is kind of racist.” Likewise, he notes that when he mentioned Bulbancha at a cocktail party at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, “somebody in this conversation just laughed at us: ‘If there was an indigenous name for this place, I would have heard about it.’”
To combat this erasure—or to use the
language of the Ramsey County Attorney, to counter “the perspectives of the dominant culture”—Darensbourg and Ozone504
partnered with the POC Zine
Project to create Bulbancha Is
Still a Place: Indigenous Culture from
New Orleans, with
publication timed to synch with the tricentennial celebration. Its first two
issues feature contributions by Leila K.
Blackbird (Mescalero Apache/Cherokee), who looks at the enslavement of
Native people by colonists and how they sidestepped a prohibition on “Indian
slavery” by using the terms “mulatto” and “creole” instead; an interview with
Winter White Hat, a Two-Spirit Lakota teen living in Bulbancha; a poem by Rain
Prud’homme-Cranford; and comics and artwork by local Indigenous makers;
among others. The cover image for issue two: a photo from 1934 of the headless
statue of Andrew Jackson—the president who signed the Indian Removal Act into
law—in New Orleans’s Jackson Square. ( “Even though no one knows who decapitated the statue,” Darensbourg
says, “Ozone and I claim full responsibility.”)
The zine is also both a celebration and a reminder: “I think that when you say the word Bulbancha you are not just saying an ordinary name, you’re acknowledging that they continue in presence of native people.”
Since then, the use of Bulbancha has gained popularity. The National Performance Network (NPN), a New Orleans–based arts nonprofit (where I first learned the term while doing freelance work), uses it in its land acknowledgement, and it’s appeared in publications from The Nation to Scalawag magazine to NOLA.com, often in reference to Darensbourg’s activism. And on the website of the Historic New Orleans Collection—where Darensbourg did his research in 2014—there are now four references. But unlike the case of Bde Maka Ska, which legally had its name changed, Darensbourg isn’t leading a charge to have New Orleans’s name officially recognized by government entities.
“I guess I’d prefer that to not, but other hand, am I ever going to ask? No,” he says. “I don’t even recognize that [the government] has the authority to do that… If someone comes into my house and tries to rename my cat, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m going to call the cat. This is not theirs to do. And that’s how I feel about Bulbancha.”
He adds, “For this place to be Bulbancha has nothing to do with this fictional, fly-by-night, who-knows-how-long-it-will-last government. And if someone says, ‘Well, it’s lasted 300 years,’ my response is, ‘We’ve lived here for 10,000 years. So it doesn’t matter to me if the colonial government ever sees it as Bulbancha.”
Instead, it seems that seeing the name’s organic adoption by people who live in Bulbancha is far more gratifying. On Tripod, an NPR podcast dedicated to New Orleans’s tricentennial, Darensbourg coined a phrase, which was used as the title of the episode, that spoke to the status of the area’s Europeans as relative newcomers. It seems it struck a nerve. A few months later, just before the city shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darensbourg was celebrating Mardi Gras. “I was walking from the R Bar in the Marigny neighborhood, packed with people, and I see this guy walking along. He’s in his early 20s and he has a jacket that says ‘New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3,000.’ I introduced myself, and he had no idea who I was. That was great, because it means that people know about it without having a relationship to me or Ozone or any of the contributors to the zine. The name is being revived.”
Welcome to Bulbancha
Reclaiming the Indigenous name for Bulbancha is, of course, political. Darensbourg agrees that it could be seen as a conceptual counter-monument: “I don’t know what way it would be represented in stone, but I do know that every time the name is used, that’s a little jab at white supremacy,” he says.
But he loves the Choctaw name for the region for another reason: it’s so much more fitting for a place of such fusion and comingling, a place of welcome—the place that birthed jazz, where amazing culinary fusions were born and evolved, and where nearly every language in the world is spoken—than a name derived from a white guy from France.
“When I say ‘Bulbancha is still a place,’ I’m not saying everybody else go home,” he says. “People here say, ‘No matter how weird you are, wherever you live, you could move here and you’re probably not that weird here.’ Obviously, the land that was Bulbancha is still a piece of land. But we’re also talking about those fundamental interactions between people, that diversity, the values of those people, the way that they would all come together and form this sort of place of interaction, place of cultural exchange. That is still a place, and Bulbancha means that place better than any European word.”