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US University Renames Dorms to Honor Native American Chiefs

  • Shelley Schlender

The University of Colorado campus in Boulder. (S. Schlender/VOA)

The University of Colorado campus in Boulder. (S. Schlender/VOA)

The University of Colorado is considering a plan to rename a couple of student dormitories in honor of two prominent Native American chiefs who once lived in the area.

It's part of a national trend, prompted by a new awareness and sensitivity to concerns among many Native Americans that some uses of tribal names, as in the cases of sports teams like the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves, can be insulting.

The University of Colorado dorms would be named after Niwot and Hosa, two leaders of the Hinono'ei, also known as the Arapaho, in the 1800s.

At schools of higher learning, buildings are often named after people who helped the institution. On the CU-Boulder campus, the two dormitories in question currently honor lawmaker Charles Kittredge, whose efforts helped launch the university and at the Kittredge coffeehouse, students have no trouble saying his name.

“Everything’s been Kitt West," said one student. "Kitt Central. Kittredge West. Kittredge Central.”

"They’re good names," said another student. "They’re classics."

The proposed new names for the Kittredge dormitories are more challenging.

CU Linguistics Department chair Andrew Cowell, a world authority on the Arapaho language, has no trouble with the names.

“[Arapaho] is the native language, essentially, of the Boulder Valley and the area of the University of Colorado,” he said. “In Arapaho, the word Niwot simply means the left hand, or someone who is left-handed. Ho is an old traditional word for God in Arapaho, the Creator. It’s also a word for Crow or Raven. And then Hosa is a crow child or a raven child, in other words, a Little Raven.”
The University of Colorado plans to name two of its dormitories after Native American chiefs Hosa (left) and Niwot of the Arapaho.

The University of Colorado plans to name two of its dormitories after Native American chiefs Hosa (left) and Niwot of the Arapaho.

More than 10,000 U.S. citizens trace their ancestry back to the tribe, but Cowell says fewer than 500 of them speak Arapaho today. CU professors are helping the Arapaho people with projects to revive their native language. And Cowell hopes renaming the dorms Niwot and Hosa will promote appreciation for disappearing languages and the efforts to preserve them.

Some students say that would be easier with the English translation of the names.

“I think it would make more sense to simplify it to English, seeing as the majority of students here are English students, and people wouldn’t pronounce it right anyway,” said one student.

But the school’s Housing and Dining Executive Director Kambiz Khalili says the appreciation would be deeper with indigenous names.

“A trend that most universities are using nowadays, like for example, Stanford, is to actually put the name in the native language, the Arapaho language,” Khalili said.

Khahili chose the names Niwot and Hosa because, in the tempestuous 1800s, these leaders sought non-violent ways for the Arapaho to live with the English-speaking settlers who were breaking treaties and forcing them from their ancestral lands.

"We did our research and we found these two individuals with a very good background, peaceful folks that were helpful to build a relationship with folks here in this Boulder Valley area," Khahili said. "And so we recommended those two names as the two individuals we thought could be inspiring to our students living in these halls."

One member of Khalili’s research group has a special reason to value authenticity; Ava Hamilton is an Arapaho tribal member.

“I like that it’s going to be called, the way we call our name," she said. "Our sacred and important language is to be spoken by everybody. Because we all learned how to speak English. We can say George Washington.”

Hamilton hopes the dorm name changes will also bring greater awareness of one of the few acknowledged atrocities within the U.S., the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, when about 700 Colorado Territory militia ambushed a small peaceful encampment of Native Americans, killing entire families, including a man who had worked hard for peace—Chief Niwot.

“I thought it was very appropriate that the celebration and the renaming of the dorms should happen during the 150th year since Sand Creek Massacre,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton, Cowell and Khalili agree that it’s healthy to share all perspectives on American history - the good, the bad, and the little known. As for CU students, over time, they'll likely get used to the new names.

“I think it is important because it is a part of our history and, like, the culture of Boulder,” said one student.

Some buildings at CU will continue to honor Kittredge, and the Arapaho names are expected to be in place this spring.