What are the Names of the Sierra Nevada?

I bet their names sound like the rumble of a boulder-fall, the tremor-producing sound of the earth splitting open, but sibilant as a rushing breeze through its passes and down its slopes.

I like to imagine the peaks of those mountains have their own identities, like siblings jostling for the highest position of regard, jutting themselves into the air to display their might against one another’s displays. The sounds those giants made as they were thrust into the pure sky are beyond my limited range of comprehension. I wonder if the force would have ruptured my ear drums. Whatever the true names of the mountains that Europeans called Sierra Nevada, I have no doubt it could shatter any ear drum that heard it spoken.

The Greeks were never sure what to call their gods or which gods were which: they padded their addresses to the gods with speculation about their names and their identities, and not only in tragedy, where metaphysical speculation might be expected.

But the uncertainty in the Americas is specific, rooted in the colonial legacy of Europeans who stole the people from the lands they knew, those at least whom they did not kill, all in order to steal the land from itself.* Many ancient names were lost, many more were beaten out of young Native Americans at the boarding schools created to remove anything ‘native’ about Native Americans.

*. This raises the curious question brought about by the collision of Native American and European ways of living with the earth, namely to whom does land belong when land belongs to no one? I would have to suppose it must be self-owned. This scenario of course assumes this land was not swallowed up by the Bureau of Land Management, whom we US citizens have entrusted with managing all the land no one owns and so all of us own.

Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, sharing a story of her family’s attempt to live true to their principles by preserving small rituals, how her father would greet the morning and every tribe around him, the animals and trees, the rivers and the mountains. Kimmerer mourns the loss of the names, but she ultimately learns to satisfy herself with other names: to be addressed with respect by name is to be given respect, whatever name one uses. To pour coffee to the ground from a pot, initially to remove the grounds floating on top, can become a ritual with as much significance as any ancient greeting.

But names matter. They differentiate. They label and often prescribe. Greeks were anxious to get the names right because the names mattered: Zeus will not help if you call him Poseidon, nor will Poseidon help your ship or anyone during an earthquake unless you call him by his names.*

*. On the other hand, names can remove respect, they can deny one’s view of themselves. Eg, ‘Donny with the Combover.’

In their “magical” activities, those anyway preserved from late antiquity—ie, those actions totally the same as any other “religious” action involving prayer, identification and request—there is a strong preference for names, true names, hidden names, power-names, along with the names of birthplace and favorite cities. A proper address made all the difference in one’s request.

I want to know the names. If ever I’m lucky enough to see the so-called Sierra Nevada again, I want to know how to greet them as acquaintances, by name, as they deserve.

But which names? Whose names? Each indigenous group had their own names for the world around them, and these names obviously overlap. Given the number of groups historically around the so-called Sierra Nevada, what name could be the true name? It’s a little bit of a let down to realize even the ancient names are not ‘official,’ except those names originating from a dominant group. But this is a human social issue now: the question, which group took the most power in the determination of a name.

So in the end, I’ll have to content myself with learning as many sets of names as possible, and then I’ll have to make an arbitrary choice between names on the spot, because ultimately the power of names is felt more by the speaker than the recipient.

Sierra Nevada between the trees, glowing pink during sunrise

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