Reflections of a Native birder: The one Indian killer bird name I really have trouble with

As a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a birder for nearly fifty years, I offer these thoughts on the burgeoning discussion to re-name birds that are named after people.

When people say they are used to the current bird names that honor people of the past, that they like their historic or nostalgic value, or that the names don’t mean anything to them other than the bird, I get that. On a typical morning walk from my home in the Pacific Northwest, I tally Steller’s Jay, Hutton’s Vireo, and Bewick’s Wren on my smart phone eBird app without much thought. If you were to say to me “Lewis’s Woodpecker”, only that glorious glossy green and rose woodpecker with the handsome gray collar pops into my mind.

But there is one bird’s name that hits me in the gut, takes my breath away, because it’s personal: Scott’s Oriole.

For better or worse, I don’t see them very often. A beautiful black and yellow oriole with an even sweeter song, they live in the higher deserts of the Southwest, mostly in areas with yucca or scattered pine-oak woodland. From the perspective of modern Euro-centric science, they were first “discovered” by a Frenchman, Charles Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), somewhere in Mexico in 1837. He collected (shot) some and had the specimens sent back to Europe, paid for by the Paris brothers, two businessmen that supported Bonaparte’s ornithology. In gratitude Bonaparte named the species Icterus parisorum when he officially described them for science. According to international protocol regarding species Latin names, they remain Icterus parisorum to this day. At the time there were no official English bird names.

If I was birding with you, as a friend, as a field trip leader, as a guide, and we came across this beautiful oriole, I’d have trouble saying its name. At some point, maybe right then, maybe later in the day walking back to the car, I’d go off. If you want to exercise your privilege as a reader and skip that part, you can skip a few paragraphs. Because now I’m going to go off.

At the same time that Bonaparte was naming this oriole after the Paris brothers, in northern Georgia my grandma’s grandma’s grand-uncle Judge John Calvin Martin, Jr, Chief Justice of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and member of the Cherokee Constitutional Convention ten years earlier, was fighting to help the Cherokee Nation build its political institutions and protect its treaty rights to stay in our homeland. In addition to having a constitution and territorial boundaries (confirmed by the US Supreme Court), the Cherokee Nation had a capitol, a bi-cameral legislature, a museum, a printing press, a newspaper (the Cherokee Phoenix, still in press today), our own alphabet (called a syllabary), and a literacy rate (90%) that was higher than that of the white settler population in Georgia. Many in our leadership had been educated in New England and were fluent in both Cherokee and English. The Cherokee people had houses, farms, schools, churches, roads, horse-drawn wagons, livestock, barns, and orchards. Some ordered clothes from Atlanta using catalogs. A few had plantations and Black slaves. White people called us “civilized”.

But the people of Georgia wanted our land. In 1830, Andrew Jackson became president and signed the Indian Removal Act, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation ever debated by the US Congress. My great-great-great-great grandfather George Wilson was one of the many Cherokees who had fought with Jackson and saved his life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend two decades earlier.

When Georgia passed a law forbidding “Indians” from bearing witness in court, the Cherokee were subjected to all manner of depredations by white pioneers trying to drive them out. My family’s homes were robbed and looted. Men were beaten on the roads. Livestock were stolen. Mothers were raped while their children watched from the bushes. In 1832, Georgia divided Cherokee lands into parcels and held a lottery, awarding them to white settlers. This allowed the pioneers to specifically target our “properties”.

As a result of these hardships, some of the Cherokees “removed” early to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). These included many on my grandfather’s side—the Thomases, Copelands, and Wilsons.

The choice between fight or flight, stay or go, was never easy for any Native American, and for most, no matter which choice they made, it was the wrong one. Between 1721 and 1819, Cherokee Nation had already agreed to 35 cessions of land (see map). Most of those on my grandmother’s side – the Parkses, Taylors, Thompsons, and Walkers – decided to stay and hope the Jackson Administration would end, the tide of anti-Native sentiment would pass, and the Cherokee Nation would continue to thrive on its homeland.

They outlasted Jackson, but President Van Buren called in General Winfield Scott to “remove” the Cherokee. On May 26, 1838, his soldiers starting going door to door, house to house, farm to farm, rounding up the Cherokees and putting us in stockades. In the chaos, families were separated. White pioneers raided our homes within hours, stealing clothes, furniture, and livestock.

Stuck in the stockades in the hot Georgia summer, people began to die. Crammed onto barges on the river, they died even more. Eventually, General Scott agreed to let the Cherokees manage our own ethnic cleansing.

My grandma’s grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Parks, and his brother Richard Taylor Parks, ages 17 and 15 at the time, drove wagons on the Trail of Tears. Their mother, Jennie A-da-we Walker, had removed four years earlier, but died upon arrival in Indian Territory. Their uncle, Richard Fox Taylor, was the leader of the 11th Detachment thru that tearful winter of 1838-39. Of 1,029 people, only 55 died along the way, a fairly good result compared to other detachments. Richard’s sister, Susannah, was able to stay in Tennessee because she married a white man. And so the family was all split up. Both their Uncle Richard and his brother Thomas had fought with Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend. Their great grandmother was Nanye’hi (Nancy Ward), Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. Susannah’s great grand-daughter was my grandma, Fannie Carr.

All told, I have dozens of ancestors who “removed early” to Indian Territory, dozens more who were forced onto the Trail of Tears, and others who were able to stay behind because they were married to a white person. These are my people.

In dire poverty in Indian Territory, the Cherokee Nation reconstituted itself, literally. My great uncle Richard Fox Taylor, the one who led the 11th Detachment, was a signer of the new Cherokee Constitution of 1839 and became Assistant Chief in 1851.

Three years later, somewhere in the desert Southwest, Darius Couch of the US Army “rediscovered” Bonaparte’s oriole and named it in honor of General Scott, probably because the oriole’s range closely matched the land the US had just taken from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Couch was a career US Army officer at the time and a naturalist on the side, so he named the bird after his boss. In the late 1830s, when Bonaparte first described the oriole, Couch was in Florida trying to ethnically cleanse it of Seminoles.

In 1886, the American Ornithological Union codified “vernacular” names, and “Scott’s Oriole” appeared in their first checklist. It remains there today, a bird that unwittingly honors conquest and colonization.

There are other Indian killer bird names, such as Abert’s Towhee, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Couch’s Kingbird, or Indian skull collector names like Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire. It’s hard to be a Native birder in the West and not run into these. But nothing irks me like Scott.

I imagine Black birders have similar personal reactions to Bachman or Audubon or others. Or like the reaction of my friend of Japanese descent, when she heard about the Richland High School Bombers, a mascot that honors the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, complete with a mushroom cloud logo and “Nuke ’em” t-shirts. She was speechless.  

It’s a privilege of being white to be able to ignore these things, to hear these names with the same clean joy as so many evocative and descriptive names like Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, or Summer Tanager, to be able to focus on the ornithological legacies of Baird, Wilson, and others, even though they were the ones who decided to honor Couch, Abert, Clark, and others.

The whole honorific name game that spread thru the American West in the mid-1800s is a hot mess, entangled with the white supremacy of the age, and somehow deaf to progressive white voices at the time, as well as to Native and Black voices. At the American Ornithological Society Congress on English Bird Names earlier in 2021, David Sibley said “changing these bird names would allow people of all backgrounds to have simple and uncomplicated conversations about the pleasure of watching birds.” People like me, for instance, won’t be going off.

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9 Responses to Reflections of a Native birder: The one Indian killer bird name I really have trouble with

  1. Pingback: Honorific bird names facts and figures | The Cottonwood Post

  2. June 9: Thanks to comments from others, I’ve since learned the bird’s name can be translated to Yucca Oriole in Finish and Norwegian, Desert Oriole in Danish, Black-hooded Oriole in Czeck, and California Oriole in German.
    Yucca Oriole is particularly poetic. Besides being very partial to yucca, the plant is important to many indigenous people of the Southwest. The Pueblo used it to purify themselves after driving out the Spaniards in 1680, and still do to this day.
    In a poll of alternate names on a Facebook group (Redpolling), Yucca is currently the clear leader with 43 votes, followed by Desert Oriole with 9, Agave with 6, and Mojave, Ocotillo, Oasis, Prickly Pear, Opuntia, and Yellow-bellied Oriole all with one to three votes each.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Thank you for sharing. I will plant some trail of tears beans today I’m memory of your people’s devastation

  4. Diane says:

    I am a birder and did not know this. It is horrible the way Native Americans were treated. I support changing the names of these birds.

  5. Granny Pat says:

    Thank you for sharing a painful story which continues to reverberate througout our culture today. Changing bird names may be one small gesture on the road to doing away with this “cult of the hero” which leads to parties seeking any reason to glorify the “hero” of the moment without reference to those universal principles of human rights for all. Unfortunately it is not likely to be a long ĺasting “fix” because it does not address the underlying problems inherent in our culture; a system perpetuating inequality and inequity in wealth and in power and in access to resources, a system, as you so eloquently say of dispossession, enclosure, psychopathic indifference and the creation of false scarcity. The struggle continues. In solidarity, love and strength.

  6. Reblogged this on The Waterthrush Blog and commented:
    WordPress prompts one to “Add you thoughts here” when reblogging another post. My thoughts are that those tears are still flowing along that trail and we need to remove all honorifics from English common names of North American birds, as we should have done long ago.

  7. Thank you for this heart-rending history lesson. Many of us are with you in applying pressure to change honorific bird names and, you know, everything else. It will be Yucca Oriole from my lips henceforth.

  8. dms215 says:

    Thank you for the great write-up. Similar to how we as individuals look back and take stock of our past actions, we as a birding community need to regularly do the same thing.

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