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Humanities Radio Season 4

Season Four: Timely Topics

Season 4, Episode 1 - The Origins Of Hispanic Latino Heritage Month

Episode 1: The Origins Of Hispanic
Latino Heritage Month

Danielle Olden, assistant professor of history, explores National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month – its origins, transformation and shortcomings.

Jana Cunningham: Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities. And today, we're discussing National Hispanic Latino Heritage Month; its origins, transformation and shortcomings. Danielle Olden, assistant professor of history is with me to discuss more.

Jana Cunningham: From September 15th to October 15th, Americans observed National Hispanic Latino Heritage Month. Let's begin with just the origins of the month, when and how did it begin?

Danielle Olden: So the Latino or Hispanic Heritage Month began first in 1968, and it really emerged in response to the social movements that were happening in the 1960s. And so Mexican Americans or Chicanxs as they called themselves at that time were really pushing by 1968 for major educational reforms in the US system. And this was of course in response to their previous educational experiences, which they felt were lacking in many ways.

Danielle Olden: So a primary objective of the Chicanx student movements were to achieve things like bilingual education programs, as well as what we would today call courses in ethnic studies or Chicanx studies. And so they really wanted history courses, in particular, history and culture, but history has played a really important part in the demands that they were making because the history classes that they were taking and that they were gaining in the public schools were not reflective of their lives in any way. And they really had no good conception of the ways that Mexican Americans and other Latinxs had contributed to American history, right, and the roles they had played and how their families and ancestors have contributed. And so through those various social movements, I think it's really where we get this idea of Hispanic or Latino Heritage Month.

Jana Cunningham: What year was National Hispanic Latino Month recognized?

Danielle Olden: So it began as National Hispanic Heritage Week, and that was in 1968.

Jana Cunningham: Okay. And then when did it become National Hispanic Latino Heritage Month?

Danielle Olden: So over the next couple of decades, more and more people started advocating for a longer period of time, obviously a week isn't enough to do this. And so it was actually in 1988. So the initial law in 1968 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson, and then it was expanded to a month to Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988, and that was signed into law by President Reagan.

Jana Cunningham: Okay. And then since 1988, how has the observance of this month changed and what changes have taken place?

Danielle Olden: Well, I think initially the idea behind it was really to focus in particular on K-12 education. The idea was to develop particular units or curriculum that social studies teachers and music teachers and even PE teachers, they could come up with dancing units or things like that. So it was to get that type of curriculum into the K-12 schools. And again, this is because none of this is being taught in the regular K-12 curriculum.

Danielle Olden: Since that time, it's remained an important part of K-12 curriculum, but I think it's really expanded. At the university level it's expanded, both in terms of what's happening educationally, but in terms of programming at universities and we do things now that are... we bring in speakers who can speak to a variety of issues. We bring in artists, poets and other visual artists. We bring in musicians. We show films like documentaries and other artistic expressions. All of that has become an important part of how we celebrate the month.

Danielle Olden: It's also expanded in the United States beyond just educational institutions. So today all sorts of different bodies or groups or entities celebrated, and so you'll see local governments, city governments, state governments, you'll see businesses participate, giant corporations, things like Chase Bank or PNC Bank or things like that. They all will have some type of recognition of the month. Whether or not they actually engage in any type of real programming is the question, and I think differs across different entities. But today there's a lot more recognition, I think, across the country that this is something that needs to be recognized if not really genuinely celebrated.

Jana Cunningham: And so let's talk about that recognition a little bit. Has it become less focused on education and history over time? The celebrations?

Danielle Olden: Yeah, I think it depends on the entity we're talking about. I think that the education level of the K-12 schools and university that it's remained really focused on education and history. I think that it has gone a little bit away from that out in the broader community. Now, whether or not that's a bad thing, I think it depends on who you ask. I think the focus should remain on education and history. This has been an issue since even before 1968, but at least in 1968 we were at least recognizing, okay, our US history curriculum has a problem. But even today in 2021, I think that problem still exists. And so while the focus I think should stay on education and history, I think it's also good to broaden it out to other types of things.

Jana Cunningham: Because it is only a month long celebration and there's so much to learn and so much to know, are there critical lessons and stories that are missing from this month-long celebration and are these celebrations failing to recognize the struggles of the community?

Danielle Olden: That's a great question, and I think that's perhaps my biggest critique of the entire idea of National Hispanic Latino Heritage Month, and the same goes for Black History Month and Women's History Month, and all of these things that we have. I think that all of them began really as I said, to try and just get something out into the public knowledge about the role of Latinxs in American society, and that was a great goal I think at the time.

Danielle Olden: Today I think that we've fallen back on the recognition of people who have made the major contributions, and we've fallen back on the celebration of culture, which again is important, but you're right. I think that these celebrations often do miss the more critical history that I'm more interested in as a historian. And I think perhaps one of the reasons for this is because it's only a month, and that goes back to the critique that these activists in the 1960s were making in the first place, which is that all of this needs to be more fully integrated into our history curriculum in general.

Danielle Olden: Let's start with a week, let's start with a month, but let's broaden it. And the problem is that for a lot of these entities that are celebrating, we haven't broadened it. And so if we just focus on a month, it's a lot easier to do the celebrating. Celebrating the people who have made America what it is, but then we do miss, well, why is it that higher number of Latinxs live in poverty? Why is that we have lower numbers of Latinx students graduating? Lower numbers of Latinx students going on to college and other higher education? Why do we have all of these wealth disparities and income disparities among different groups of Americans? Why do we have housing segregation? Why do we have these neighborhoods that are made up of majority Latinxs? Places like east Los Angeles or Spanish Harlem, or even the west side of Salt Lake City,

Danielle Olden: I think that the celebration lens, again, while important really limits that more critical understanding of the way that class and race and gender structure of the US society. It really sort of difficult ways to pinpoint, but I think history is really relevant for understanding those questions.

Jana Cunningham: So we've talked a little bit about K-12 and the education there. What about universities? How can universities and their students, and administration and faculty better honor and observe this month?

Danielle Olden: It's a difficult question because in general, I think most universities are doing a pretty good job of recognizing the month and sponsoring programming that students want and need and demand in fact. Showing those documentaries, bringing the filmmakers and the artists to campus and engaging with students, all of that is great and I think it's really important work. But I guess just going back to those original critique and demands of those students and the 1960s, the problem remains, which is that we haven't done a good job of making sure that Latinx history is central to our curriculums across the board and not just during the month between September 15th and October 15.

Danielle Olden: And so our university, I think, is sort of on that path and one of the ways that we've tried to ensure that students get a more diverse critical curriculum is by including a diversity requirement in our general education curriculum, and I think that's great. I'm a little biased as a historian and that I think that our students actually need more history courses in particular. So all the diversity credit is great. I think most students in fact get those credits outside of courses that are really engaging critically with history. And so I think that we could do a better job of making sure that students are getting that critical historical perspective in their general education curriculum, and making sure it's important beyond the month.

Jana Cunningham: That was Danielle Olden, assistant professor of history. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit

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Season 4, Episode 2 - Mexican Women's Labor Movement with Susie Porter

Episode 2: Mexican Women's Labor Movement with Susie Porter

In honor of National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month, Susie Porter, professor of history and gender studies and director of the Center for Latin American Studies, discusses the history of the women’s labor movement in Mexico and her book “From Angel to Office Worker; Middle-Class Identity of Female Consciousness in Mexico, 1890-1950.”

Jana Cunningham: Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities and today, in honor of national Hispanic Latino Heritage Month, we're discussing the history of Mexican women with historian, Susie Porter. Professor Porter is the director of the Center for Latin American studies and the author of “From Angel to Office Worker Middle-class Identity, a female consciousness in Mexico, 1890 to 1950.”

Jana Cunningham: Your book examines the changing role of middle-class women in the early 20th century and their impact on the women's labor movement. How and why did the role of middle-class women change at that time?

Susie Porter: Thank you for having me on the podcast. Those are great questions. We can talk about two types of change, changes in women's labor and changes in people's conceptions of middle-class identity. So the context is that due to shifts in the Mexican economy in the late 19th century, middle-class households found themselves in increasingly difficult circumstances. The federal government had favored large-scale agricultural and industrial production to the detriment of both working class and middle class families.

Susie Porter: By the late 19th century, there was a decline in those occupations historically available to the middle class, and there was a decline in the value of the wages that they earned. It became harder to pay for housing, for education, for clothing, which was important at that time for marking one status and even to pay for food. These economic changes then meant that the relative value of women's labor in the household changed. Historically, to identify as middle class meant that women remained in the home. They work at home, but not outside of the home.

Susie Porter: The respectability of both women as individuals and that of her household required her to remain at home engaged in the labor of raising family, preparing food, making clothing, and all of that work. However, it became more profitable for middle-class households, for women to work outside of the home and to earn a wage. So this was a major shift in how the middle-class identified to have women working outside of the home. And I'll just note that these processes are similar to something that played out in the United States between roughly the 1970s and now. Since the 1970s, workers, including middle-class workers have seen a decline in real wages.

Susie Porter: That is what their wages can buy. This decline in earning capacity led middle-class families to make the decision to have women work outside of the home. Not only when they were young and single, but once they were married and even with children at home. Now this shift is something that happened among white Americans, African-Americans in particular. And to a certain extent, Latinos have a much longer history of sending women outside of the house to work in order to maintain their standard of living. But as I said, then as a result of these shifts in the 1970s in the United States, there was an explosion in the workforce participation of married women with young children still at home.

Jana Cunningham: And so what type of work was available to the middle-class women as opposed to working class?

Susie Porter: Well, in the late 19th, early 20th century, not many. And one of the things that shaped this was people's ideas about who worked outside of the home or not, who worked in the public sphere or not. And the racial formations of the era associated working in public with indigenous peoples and with working class peoples. And so those who sought to maintain middle-class status, did everything they could to keep women from working outside of the home. They would even, for example, work inside the home making candies, making prepared food, for example, and then hiring someone to go out and into the streets to sell those items.

Susie Porter: Women also worked as seamstresses. So they sewed the clothing for their own family sometimes, but sewing allowed them to remain at home and maintain that middle-class respectability. But there were so many women who sought this option that it was really poorly paid. Probably one of the watershed moments in terms of middle-class women's employment was in the field of teaching.

Susie Porter: So Mexico has a long history of women teaching within convents, but teaching as a secular occupation, really only open to women in the late 1880s. My book looks at women's entrance into office work. So with the expansion of business and the economy, the expansion of the government to support business with things like the post office, the labor department, federal banking offices, for example, the bureaucracy, both in the private and the public sector exploded. And those entities turned to women to fil the offices with secretaries, typists, filers, all these kinds of occupations.

Jana Cunningham: And as women moved into the workforce, specifically into these offices in the public and private sector, what kind of inequalities and issues did they face that they maybe weren't prepared for?

Susie Porter: Well, so there are several moments in the trajectory of women entering into the workforce or anyone entering into the workforce where inequality begins. So inequality can begin even before ones hired. First, in regard to access to education. Those fortunate enough to come from families that supported women's work outside of the home would have needed to have not only the money to pay for school because the secretarial schools were not free, but those families had to be able to afford having those women not work and contributing to the household economy.

Susie Porter: It's the same kind of challenge that a lot of our students at the university of Utah face today, how do you balance the cost of education to even get your foot in the door, to be able to then find lucrative and fulfilling work? The other kind of inequality that women faced before getting to work was social prejudice. In the late 19th, early 20th century, most people thought that women shouldn't work outside of the home. Maybe they would work if they were daughters contributing to the household, but once they were married, people didn't think that mothers should work outside of the home.

Susie Porter: Inequality also happens at the moment of establishing networks to get jobs, who do you know, how can you leverage those networks to get a position? So the inequality began even before women got to work. And then when they got to work, they were hired into low-level positions, positions that were sometimes not clearly defined, positions where the path to promotion was unclear, positions where their seniority, how the seniority was calculated was not clear. So there were all sorts of different factors that shaped women's inequality at work. And government jobs were interesting because each category had a set wage.

Susie Porter: So if you were a typist, you were a typist. If you were an office apprentice, you were an office apprentice. Regardless of being male or female, you earned the same wage. So inequalities developed, despite the fact that women were paid the same wages in offices, and it was due to these barriers to their promotion. And all of these inequalities made women vulnerable to sexual harassment. So that would be another important inequality in the workplace. I'd add that while this book examines Mexican history, there's really no need to look beyond the state of Utah to understand the urgency to make such issues visible. In Utah, women earn around 70 cents for every dollar a man earns. And despite the lip service to the contrary, we in Utah continue to value workplace productivity over raising children, and really offer very meager support for working parents.

Jana Cunningham: Right. Even as you were kind of talking about these inequalities that these women in Mexico were facing, I was thinking you could very easily be talking about the inequalities that are happening today.

Susie Porter: Absolutely.

Jana Cunningham: How did these women in Mexico organize to enact change? And what were their demands?

Susie Porter: Organizing begins from conversation, from talking with each other, comparing experiences. In drawing on their work experiences, these women wrote beautiful literature and biting feminist critiques that were published in the newspapers. They attended boring organizational meetings and thrilling street protests. And they proclaimed the dignity of working mothers by defending their rights as workers, and by getting their employers to provide childcare. I'll note that they had to overcome the stigma associated with organizing in general and unions in particular. But once they did, once they came to understand their shared condition, they formed one of the most powerful unions in Mexico, the public employees union.

Susie Porter: They were at the heart of the public employee labor movement. So in some sense, if it were not for women, for feminism and the women's movement, the 1930s union movement would have not flourished the way that it did. What were their demands? Equal pay for equal work and end to the glass ceiling, respect for seniority, transparency and promotions and access to childcare. They also demanded a shift in conversation. So in the 1920s, there were all sorts of debates about whether or not women should cut their hair short and whether or not they should wear flopper style dresses with shorter hemlines. And women said, "No, it's not our clothes. It's not about the haircuts. It's about equal rights." And at this moment, women in Mexico did not have the vote. They said, "It's not about what makeup we wear, it's about getting the right to vote."

Jana Cunningham: So in your book, you argue that inequality in the workplace reinforces larger societal inequality. Can you just talk about that a little bit more in depth?

Susie Porter: Yeah. So this generation of women who in the 1920s entered into office work in huge numbers and then began organizing, really critiqued women's social subordination to men, the privileging of the needs of male ego. And most of us spend all day at work and the conditions of that work inform how we relate to each other. Gender inequities in pay, promotion, voice, and power set the conditions for social inequalities. So the structure and organization of the workforce laid the basis for women's subordination to men, both at work and at home. So the way work was organized, reinforced gender hierarchies. Women reported to men. When they took dictation, they wrote down the words that men spoke and then they went and typed up those words and made them look pretty and organized.

Susie Porter: In the workplace, men in the 1920s were addressed by a title that indicated their level of education. So licenciado means that you have a BA, you might be doctor as a doctor. Women were called Senorita. You might be 45 years old, a full grown adult, married and addressed in the workplace as Senorita. And this to some degree persist today in Mexico. And that title of Senorita, that means it identifies you first as a woman, a woman who's dependent upon male authority, because that's what that word historically means. And to some degree, it marks you as sexually available.

Susie Porter: So that kind of workplace relationship, if that's how you relate with each other all day long, it's going to carry over into the larger society. So for example, when women left the office to socialize, they had less money in their pockets than men. So men would pay for lunch or drinks or whatever it is. And what does that imply? What kind of inequality does that set up when men are the ones with money to pay for socializing and women aren't? How does shape our understanding of a woman's worth? A lot of these young women were working so that their brothers could stay in school.

Susie Porter: So that sets up an inequality. And then the money that they contributed to the household was less than that of men. So their value within the household economy was unequal. All of these things set up the... I try to think about the way that this book and this research speaks to our contemporary times. And one of the ways is that what we call mansplaining today is reinforced by spending all day long in workplaces where men are the authority and women’s job is to listen to men, to report to men, to follow their orders, to be subordinate to them.

Susie Porter: Another example is the way childcare responsibilities really limit women's workplace successes. We face a continued lack on the part of society as a whole to care for children. It's one of the things that we've learned with the pandemic is that women enter the workforce from radically different circumstances than men. Women come with a greater responsibility for childcare. And when the pandemic hit, women lost jobs and have remained out of the workforce because someone has to raise children. And I would argue that women in 1930s, Mexico city made that kind of issue more visible than we have here today in Utah.

Jana Cunningham: How did the contributions of the women in Mexico, in the 1930s shape the workforce in society today? How is it different now because of what they demanded and what they contributed?

Susie Porter: They started conversations about the rights of working mothers and the need for childcare for working mothers. They started conversations about the importance of transparency, objective criteria for promotion. Laws against sexual harassment started back in 1920s, Mexico. And they started conversations again about gender inequality and sexual exploitation, both within and outside of the workplace. And I just wanted to say, we started this podcast with a reference to national Hispanic Latino heritage month. And I would say that we could ask of our current times some of the questions that I've asked in this book, which is to say, what are the inequalities that Latinx people face in our society today and in the workforce in particular.

Susie Porter: And some of the most recent studies have found that Latinas are typically paid 55 cents for every dollar paid to white non-Hispanic men nationally. The median annual pay for Latinas in the United States who have a full-time job is around $36,000. While the median annual pay for white non-Hispanic men is around $65,000, which is a difference of $29,000 a year. So if we eliminate that wage gap, the typical Latino woman working in the US would have enough money to pay approximately for three additional years of tuition and fees for a four year public university or the full cost of tuition and fees for a two year college.

Susie Porter: So it's important to remember the way that those inequalities exist across national boundaries and how they persist today and continue to be issues that we need not only to talk about, but to organize around. And in the face of, just a overwhelming number of negative stereotypes that circulate in the media about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, I really hope that this book provides profiles in courage and persistence and creativity set in the context of workaday lives. And I'll just note that next spring semester I'll be teaching a course on Latin American women's history. And if anyone's interested, they should look for it in the Latin American studies class lists during the department of history.

Jana Cunningham: Oh, that sounds wonderful. And where can people purchase your book, Professor Porter?

Susie Porter: It's published with the university of Nebraska Press. And so, if you just do a web search university of Nebraska Press and the title, they can find it there.

Jana Cunningham: That was Susie Porter, professor of history and gender studies and director of the Center for Latin American studies. For more information about the University of Utah college of Humanities, please visit

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Season 4, Episode 3 - Day of the Dead with Taunya Flores

Episode 3: Day of the Dead
with Tanya Flores

Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – is a two-day Mexican holiday held on Nov. 1 and 2 to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died. Tanya Flores, assistant professor of World Languages and Cultures, discusses a bit of its history and her personal experience celebrating the holiday.

Jana Cunningham: Hello. Thank you for joining me on humanities radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the university of Utah, College of Humanities and today we're discussing Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. A two day Mexican holiday held on November one and two celebrating the lives of loved ones who have passed on. Tanya Flores, assistant professor of world languages and cultures is with me to discuss more. Let's begin with the history of Day of the Dead. The origins come from both Aztec and Catholic traditions. So professor Flores, can you talk a little bit more about how the holiday began?

Tanya Flores: Yeah, thanks for having me, Jana. So I wanted to just clarify that this is not my area of expertise, so I'm not a historian. I'm a person who celebrates this holiday and it's dear to me so I wanted to join you. I think that for your question about the history, like many traditions in Mexico, it's a blend of indigenous and European traditions. I think the rituals are originally Aztec and then it moved to line up with the Catholic calendar to November 1st and 2nd, which are All Saints Day and All Souls Day. And I think that combination works because the point of both of those is to keep the memory of loved ones alive, so it overlaps thematically.

Jana Cunningham: And just so we get this out of the way, Day of the Dead is not the Mexican version of Halloween.

Tanya Flores: Correct.

Jana Cunningham: It is completely different type of holiday that celebrates death in a different way. And I want to make sure we clarify that just from the get-go that some people in the US may think of it as just Mexico's version of Halloween, but it is completely different and that's what we're going to get into today.

Tanya Flores: Yeah, exactly. I think it's just the days, because it's... October 31st is Halloween and November 1st and 2nd are day of the dead that it seems like it should be more related, but they are very different.

Jana Cunningham: So how has the holiday evolved through the centuries?

Tanya Flores: So overall, I think it's expanded over the centuries to more areas that celebrate it, but how it's exactly evolved is a little harder to say, because it's celebrated differently in different places. Some of these places have maintained the same traditions that date back centuries. As an example, I was in Michoacan one year about... It's been almost 20 years now and the island of Janitzio is a really famous place to celebrate Day of the Dead because it's a little island in [foreign language 00:03:04] and they light up the... They light up the island with candles. It's really, really beautiful. And I'm sure they've been doing that for hundreds of years and they might've changed the way they do it a little bit, but it actually is still very traditional. It's very historic. It's a custom that's been observed and I don't think it's changed a whole lot.

Tanya Flores: The basics with the Dia de los Muertos is the altares, the little altars that people make in their home, which they're still doing. Maybe the details of what they put on the altar has changed, but not much. I mean, I can say just from experience with family members who have said how they used to do it. Grandparents saying how they did it when they were children and how we do it today, it's very much the same. So I think it's not changed for a lot of people. Probably the bigger differences are more related to how it's celebrated in the US versus how it's celebrated in Mexico. There are places in Central America that celebrate it as well. I don't have any personal experience on that, I just know that they do. But in Mexico, people who are living in small towns, they still visit the cemeteries. They still light candles from their home to the cemeteries because they're close and they can. So some of the details really, I don't think have changed and that's one of the really special things about this holiday.

Jana Cunningham: So take us through both of the days, November 1st and 2nd. What are the celebrations like? What is done differently on the first and the second and how do you observe both those days?

Tanya Flores: Yeah. Okay. So November 2nd is the main day, I would say. It corresponds to the Catholic All Souls Day. That's the Dia de los Muertos tradition. And then November 1st is All Saints Day and in Mexican tradition, it's the day of celebrating the children who have died. November 2nd is the day that you celebrate adults who have died, which in most families, of course, was like grandma and grandpa and that's where a lot of the traditions get observed. But of course, if you have a child who's passed on in your family, November 1st is then a day that people do something special for that child. I think that as far as how they're celebrated specifically, it might be very similar. So on both days, I mean, similar to how you would celebrate with an adult versus a child, except for the... Okay. So for example, the main thing is to make alters in the home.

Tanya Flores: So there's a flower, it's a marigold in Spanish it's Cempasuchil. That's actually the Aztec word. Cempasuchil is the traditional flower that you buy and you put on your altar. Incense, some people burn incense. And then the pictures, you have pictures of all your loved ones who've passed. Pan de Muertos is a sweet bread that people make and it has a cross shape on the top. And then a very traditional thing that I've actually never seen an altar without this, is favorite food and drink of the deceased person. And so obviously if it's a child, you probably wouldn't have had necessarily a food or drink for that person, but you still have the flowers and the pictures if you had pictures depending. And the Pan de Muertos is just general. That's just something that everybody eats, but the food and drink can be customed to what that person drinks.

Tanya Flores: So on my own with my grandfather, we put something that he really liked, or we make like... My grandmother used to make tamales before she passed. Or people make food, actual dinner type food that they're going to eat. So that's what the altares have. It's pretty traditional. In the US I've seen art exhibits on Day of the Dead or educational events, kids crafts. We've taken our daughter to events where they're making the paper decorations, which look like little flags in their cutout, skeleton theme, sugar skulls, all of that. Oh, the sugar skulls, a really popular thing is sugar skulls that you eat and they're very decorated. That's probably the images that people associate today of the dead in the US are of what a sugar skull looks like that you eat and those are sold everywhere in Mexico.

Tanya Flores: The last time I was in Mexico for Day of the Dead was about 20 years ago. I was in Quertaro and it's a city in the center of Mexico and starting around early October, you can start to buy everything. The sugar skulls, the flowers, they start selling them pretty much everywhere. So it's very prominent. La Catrina is a common image of a woman, a skeleton, she's a skeleton, but she's become the face of this too. Yeah. So that's how these things are celebrated.

Jana Cunningham: And then when do you like the... On both November 1st and 2nd, do they have those... The big celebrations out in the streets and the festivals, do those happen on both days?

Tanya Flores: When I was in Queretaro they had a lot of things starting already in middle of October and going through, and then the main days, the 1st and 2nd were actually more solemn and private because people go to the cemeteries and they eat with their loved ones on their graves. So I know this might sound a little bit morbid, but it's really part of this tradition where it's a way of keeping people alive, like keeping... Keeping at least their memory alive and trying to... It ties into the cultural perspective on death, that it's not something scary, it's just something natural and part of life. So the 1st and 2nd, there are places that would have some celebratory things that are fun and light, but a lot of places traditionally just do the more private cemetery, family oriented things you eat with your family.

Tanya Flores: Another one of, actually we're talking about the traditions, and one of my favorite traditions that I remember growing up is, and this is going to sound morbid as well, but I think it's just part of it. The Calaveras, the word calavera means skull, but the tradition is, it means epitaph. The part that you write on a tombstone, but they're funny. So they're roasts for your living, friends and family. So in our home, we would write these for everyone in our family and celebrities or people, other people usually celebrities. My mom was actually really good at this, so they were really funny. And I remember doing that and I think it just took away the fear of death. So I didn't grow up really feeling like death was something scary because we had fun with it.

Tanya Flores: But I know for some people that seems morbid. We're going to the cemeteries to eat over the graves. And with that, with the cemeteries in Mexico, our relatives would actually light candles, they'd put little candle from the cemetery, from the grave to their homes because it lights the path. So the tradition is that on the 1st and 2nd, the souls of your deceased loved ones can come back and spend the day with you, they're allowed back. So people will light the paths to the home. Here in the US I don't know if people do that. I've never seen it. Ourselves, we didn't grow up doing that because our loved ones who had passed were in Mexico, so it wouldn't... It just wasn't really an option. But the first person to pass in my lifetime was my grandfather and he did live here in the US.

Tanya Flores: And we didn't do that. We just did the altares in our homes and visited the cemetery and took flowers. Just more, maybe the... An American tradition of... Because it's not a common thing here. But in Mexico, yes. It's very common. You eat at the cemetery. It's almost like the party is happening at the cemetery and other people are there too. It fills up. People are gathering with their loved ones and having meals and yeah. So it would be celebrated differently if your loved ones are buried in Mexico and you're celebrating it here. So it has to be different. But if you have loved ones here, buried in the US maybe there are people who go and celebrate there. I don't know, we've never done that, we've just taken flowers.

Jana Cunningham: It sounds like such a wonderful way of taking... Of making something that seems scary... Taking death how, it seems so scary and making it not scary. And from the very beginning if you're growing up this way, it takes away that fear of death.

Tanya Flores: Yeah. I think that, that's the main thing. Is that it's a different perspective. When I have talked to my students about Dia de los Muertos, I used to teach high school and that's when it would come up a little more often, but the students often responded very positively to the Mexican viewpoint on death, because maybe not everybody wants to treat death as something taboo and scary and I feel like in American culture, at least publicly, there is this different treatment. People have told me even that they don't feel comfortable talking about their loved ones after they've passed, like it's taboo or they feel like it's not appropriate. But that's not a... That's definitely opposite of the Mexican viewpoint. We talk about our loved ones. Sometimes, I know this is going to sound again morbid, but sometimes we talk about them like they're still here in a very real way.

Tanya Flores: Sometimes not sometimes it's like, "Oh yeah, well, when they were alive or your grandfather loved this." For me, for example, this is one that's personal, is that the thing I remember the most about my grandfather is his laugh. So if I hear somebody who laughs like him, I usually will comment something like, "That's my grandfather's laugh, or I heard my grandfather laugh." That kind of thing. So I think that it is definitely a very different viewpoint, but like you said, we grew up not thinking of this as something scary. So even the details of when we talk about it, they seem morbid by comparison, but they're not morbid to us.

Tanya Flores: And I think that a lot of people actually find it very comforting. I think once people learn about it, there is something comforting about it. Especially after somebody has lost a loved one. I find myself feeling like the perspective is helpful and it's comforting. My family lost a lot of people in 2020, and we had a lot of relatives who passed, even younger people. And I think that making the altar for them and remembering them in that way is a connection. And it helps, I think it's comforting.

Jana Cunningham: Absolutely. And I think that seems like something that... At least in the US we attribute, or I think a lot of people attribute the Day of the Dead with celebrations and all these fun, exciting things, but it's important for them to understand what the meaning truly is. And it's remembering the loved ones and having, and feeling connected to them in sort of a way. And I think that's important for people to understand.

Tanya Flores: Yeah, it is. It really is. The connection is really important. One of the things I appreciated about the two, there were two recent cartoon films, Coco, and The Book of Life that came out a few years back with... In English, their cartoon, their for American audiences. And one of the things that I appreciated about it is the storylines were interesting, but they also somehow made the feeling of Day of the Dead. They tapped into that... This beautiful connection with the ancestors that I thought that was really important that they do that because that really captured the nuanced meanings or the viewpoint, I guess, is the viewpoint of this holiday.

Jana Cunningham: And do you think those types of pop culture have increased the popularity of Day of the Dead in the US?

Tanya Flores: Yeah, absolutely. I think that at least it made people more curious about it, but yeah. I mean, as somebody who teaches... I'm not teaching Spanish language courses, but I do teach in Spanish and so sometimes these things come up still, even in my linguistics classes. And I think it's definitely increased knowledge and popularity and people will look into it, they'll ask more about it. I think it's definitely made it... Yeah, more known and really, yeah it's popularized it, like you said. And in the right way, I feel like those movies have done it in a very appropriate way. You feel the comfort of it and not the scary horror film approach.

Jana Cunningham: Right. Right. And especially for little kids when it's kind of, some of those things, especially like Coco, it's an introduction to death for many of them. And so for them to see it in this way, maybe like we were already talking about takes the fear out of it.

Tanya Flores: Yeah. I hope so. I hope so.

Jana Cunningham: That was Tanya Flores, assistant professor of world languages and cultures. For more information about the university of Utah College of Humanities, please visit

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Season 4, Episode 4 - Scary Dog Writing Series

Episode 4: Scary Dog Writing Series

In celebration of Halloween, two graduate students – Nina Feng and Jasmine Khaliq – share their eeriest written works. These students are part of a group called Working Dog, a reading series that features the most engaging and fresh poems and prose coming out of the Department of English Creative Writing Program. These works were composed for a special Halloween series known as Scary Dog.

Jana Cunningham: Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities. Today, in celebration of Halloween, we'll hear from two of our graduate students as they share their eeriest written works. These students are part of a group called Working Dog, a reading series featuring the most engaging and fresh poems and prose coming out of the Department of English Creative Writing program. These works were composed for a special Halloween series known as Scary Dog.

Nina Feng: Hello. My name is Nina Feng and I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric studies at the University of Utah. Today, I'll be reading a story called, "The Grief Eater," that I wrote. The title is by my friend, Mi Yung McFalls-Schwartz.

Nina Feng: This is a story of the witch in the woods. Every Friday, the villagers gave her an offering. They opened their stomachs and hooked their fingers around the writhing end of a black string, pulled it taut and ripped it with their teeth. With blood flowering on their mouths, they gathered at the opening of a small cave. Shadowed in the dense trees, working their slick strings together, they wound it into a ball, leaving it on the ground. They did not know what the witch did with the strings. If they did not leave an offering, they knew she would come to their doors. But the village was running out of string. Some dug deep into the muscle, desperately feeling for moving twine, and there was none left. They began to look for travelers, lost children, silently filtering into other villages at night. There were times those bodies held string, but some were absent of it, as well.

Nina Feng: One morning, someone woke without a heart, and their family mourned the body, a sunken hole in her chest, open eyes. The witch had come in the night. She needed more string. When there was death in the village, everyone began to create more string. The villagers decided they would not wait for the witch to come to them.

Nina Feng: They contemplated the elderly. And so they burned one of the oldest villagers. Yet strings still did not come forth in abundance. Only the loss of a child made the string spew, slippery spools reeling deep within each villager's body.

Nina Feng: No family wanted to relinquish their children. So everyone marked their children's names on paper and slipped them into a bowl to be chosen. One by one, as the years went by, the children were burned in the cave as they all watched, feeling the string gather wildly within them. They are all so much older now. It has been decades. And on this day, as they watch a burning, the string is still. There's no movement, no snaking black strands twisting into their throats, strangling their bellies. They nod in understanding and wait in their beds for the witch. They watch the dawn creep over the mountains, light pooling beneath the doors. They lie in their beds as a sun sweeps high into the sky, falling again as night drapes over them.

Nina Feng: But she does not come that night, or the nights that follow. The villagers, they wait. They gather in a circle and lie with their chests facing the sky. They offer her anything she wants, but she is gone. They lost everything long ago. Thank you.

Jasmine Khaliq: Hi, I'm Jasmine Khaliq. I am a PhD student in Creative Writing, Poetry, and I'm from northern California where some of these poems take place.

Jasmine Khaliq: Portraits.

Jasmine Khaliq: Once for three minutes straight, I watched that little brown bird throw itself again and again into the side mirror of my car. I did not move.

Jasmine Khaliq: In bluer hours, hills black, green, I could die driving that road. Fast go, possibly crow. I could have died a long time ago. I've seen myself slink and bruise up and down my hall. Long hair, no face. She is the pulp of me. She and I waiting.

Jasmine Khaliq: I had that dream again. Fantasies of other forms. Of big skirts, big sleeves and throats blushed like raw steak, I've seen. In some other time, in some other place, I would shoot ducks. Each of them with my name.

Jasmine Khaliq: Portrait, the Evans.

Jasmine Khaliq: When we were younger and I had only one face, I remember sitting with your very big dog, pulling up grass and pinching slivers through my pierced ears as you tied them into hoops. Your father keeps asking after me, and it makes me dream about stables and you killing sick horses. When you come to lead the next away, air hangs around you differently.

Jasmine Khaliq: I haven't been myself either. I like my meat rarer these days. I wonder about wives, and if I had the guts to be yours. I never wanted to, but I can thread a needle with my eyes pinched shut, sit all night in cotton and felt, stuffing animals and guns. Our daughter's initials on every body and every barrel.

Jasmine Khaliq: What I'm saying is, there are three or more versions of my face out there. In wet knives, in dark storefronts. Have you seen them? I won't ask if you like them. I don't care if you do. My real body in wheat, dragging lust, somewhere horses.

Jasmine Khaliq: [foreign language 00:07:03] or Despair.

Jasmine Khaliq: In February snow, a gash of noise, like Euripides, women translated into vowels, long and low, threatens to open wide my body, feral and forgone. A slow spilling. The tailored glacier. Leaky mouth, poured wine.

Jasmine Khaliq: Last night in Russia, black snow fell, in pieces soft and beautiful. I nearly believed that clouds meant more, and Heaven was, and the crows all there in pieces shed their bodies. Beautiful, unspeakably so.

Jasmine Khaliq: And lastly, [foreign language 00:07:58] Three, or Winter Three.

Jasmine Khaliq: I'm tired of sheeping. How boring to be good. A head gets heavy. I can only feel this ribbon brush against my throat so long, you know? One day, I'll untie it. I know. Let the whole thing roll off.

Jana Cunningham: That was Nina Fang and Jasmine Khaliq sharing their works written for the series, Working Dog. For more information about the College of Humanities, visit And don't forget to subscribe Humanities Radio.

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Season 4, Episode 5 - Jetsonorama with Chris Ingraham

Episode 5: Jetsonorama
with Chris Ingraham

In honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, Chris Ingraham, associate professor of communication, discusses a man named Chip Thomas, an African-American doctor, photographer and public artist, who lives on the Navajo reservation and does rural street art to showcase the beauty and challenges of the Dine people.

Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah, College of Humanities and today, in honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, I'm speaking with Chris Ingraham, associate professor of communication, about a man named Chip Thomas. An African-American doctor, photographer and public artist, Thomas lives on the Navajo Reservation and does rural street art to showcase the beauty and challenges of the Dine people.

Jana Cunningham: So Chip Thomas, also known as Jetsonorama, am I saying that correct?

Chris Ingraham: I think so, yes.

Jana Cunningham: As he's known in the art world, moved to the Navajo Nation in 1987. Can you tell us a little bit about why he made that decision at that time?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah. Chip is from Eastern North Carolina, or sorry, Western North Carolina and was going to med school. And had got a scholarship that would fund him for the remainder of his time there, but he needed to spend some time ... One stipulation of the funding was that he needed to spend time in an area with serious health disparities, particularly with access to healthcare.

Chris Ingraham: So he, as a Black American, was interested in going to Africa and doing some work there, but they couldn't make that work out. So he ended up going to the Navajo Nation instead, and ever since he's been working there.

Jana Cunningham: And he has been an artist, so he's not ... Along with being a physician, he's an artist. And was he already involved in his artwork by the time he got to the reservation in 1987?

Chris Ingraham: He was. He had been to an arts school growing up, like an arts and craft school, and been involved in that community. And if you read him self-describe himself, he says he always thought of himself as an honorary member of the street art scene and the hiphop scene in New York City, even though he was far away from that world. He had been doing photography and creative visual arts for a while, but wasn't going to do that professionally.

Jana Cunningham: And so his artwork, so let's just describe his artwork as it is now. He does these black and white photographs and makes them giant. And then paste them on to roadside structures so people who are driving by see them. Can you talk a little bit more about his artwork and why he's using that medium?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah. I guess when he moved to Navajo Nation in 1987, he just was fascinated. I mean, it's a different part of the world relative to where he grew up. And he began taking a lot of photos, including photos of the people. And over time he developed a relationship with them and thought, "Well, you know what? This place feels to outsiders very remote and middle of the nowhere-ish." And he wanted to give people who are passing through a chance to see some of the community members themselves.

Chris Ingraham: He took some of these photographs that he had taken and began enlarging them. So he started this self-funded project called Big, was his name for it, in 2009. Where he was going to make some of the selected photographs that he'd taken really big and wheat paste them onto, as you mentioned, abandoned buildings, roadside stalls, water towers, things like that.

Chris Ingraham: And they were primarily initially pictures of actual Navajo people, smiling or posing for the camera or some candid shots as well. And eventually they evolved to have more social-political statements, environmental statements and so on. But they're really arresting, if you happen to see them in person,

Jana Cunningham: The photos are, when I've been researching and looking at his photos, they are quite intimate and they do represent these major social issues on the reservation. Can you talk a little bit about what issues he's tackling through these images?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah, there are a number. One of the things that he did before he starting this Big project that I mentioned, in 2009, was he did just more traditional aerosol street art, so graffiti basically.

Chris Ingraham: For example, there was a billboard advertising Pepsi, the soda company. And I think their logo was maybe The Choice of a New Generation or something like that at the time. And I think he spray-painted out "new" and said "diabetic," he wrote "diabetic" over something along those lines. As a doctor calling attention to gaps in knowledge about health and nutrition and the way certain companies are marketing deliberately to an area that's impoverished and vulnerable to some of those issues.

Chris Ingraham: So health has been one issue that he's continually returned to. Another major one I'd say is this theme of his work is uranium mining, which has been a problem on Navajo Nation for a long time. And so he's done some cool installations. He did one in collaboration with an art museum in Flagstaff called “Atomic” that was about the detrimental repercussions of uranium mining and transport of uranium over the reservation. Going back to a long time ago, since at least the 1979 big uranium trailing spill in Church Rock, New Mexico.

Chris Ingraham: Another theme he did along that line was photograph a bunch of sheep and put them on an exterior of this cinder block building. And then on the interior of the building have images that were all colored in that green radioactive color, as a meditation room or a calming room, but also a space to reflect on the hidden dangers of uranium. Sheep were particularly salient in this case because a number of sheep just died instantly on account of the uranium trailings.

Jana Cunningham: And as he's a physician, and we talked about how he does a lot of health or talks a lot about health through his art, how is he tackling COVID-19?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah. That's an interesting one. So I haven't seen anything that he's written lately about that, although I may be missing some stuff. But I had the opportunity to be down on the Navajo Nation a couple weeks ago for our fall break and wanted to see what he was up to in terms of the new installations. And there were some new murals that were similar to the type of work he does, and large photographs he pasted on services. But they showed people wearing masks. So there was now an acknowledgement that this is okay within the culture.

Chris Ingraham: One interesting thing about his work is that he's known locally as the doctor. And locally, we're talking about ... His terrain as a doctor is 120 miles, that's the radius that he works within. But Navajo Nation is 27,500 square miles across three states. And he recognized early on that the region that he's located in, it's called the Western Agency of Navajo Nation, is very heavily trafficked by passers through. Because I mean, it's got Monument Valley on one side, it's got the Grand Canyon on another, Lake Powell, Zion, Canyon de Chelly. All these are surrounding this area.

Chris Ingraham: So knowing that people will pass through his work now has an opportunity to benefit the community by getting outsiders to say, "Hey, this isn't just a place in the middle of nowhere. This isn't just a place that's pretty. There are people that live here and these people have some serious disadvantages." Like he says, 20% of his patients don't have water or electricity. Their unemployment on the reservation is over 50%. Teen suicide is two times national average. I think these are some of the issues that he's trying to call attention to, to the outside.

Chris Ingraham: But at the same time, he's been very explicit about this work is important for the community itself, because it helps them see themselves as people that know one another. And, "Oh, I know that. There's a new one over there, that's my friend." And it seems to offer some intrinsic benefit and uplifting and holding the community together.

Jana Cunningham: And so talking about a little bit how he's a member of this community, how did he create such a solid relationship with the community and with the Navajo people? Because he was someone who came in from the outside and has been there now for 30 plus years. And how has he gained their trust and become such a solid member of their community?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah, that's a tough one. I think, from what I've been able to figure out, I think it's a host of factors. One is he's been there a while now. He's been there since 1987 and he hasn't left. I mean, not a lot of people go and make that their home from outside of the Dine community. He's also a Black American who, given American history, has some similar stories of oppression and being marginalized and so on. He can identify with that group and I think it works reciprocally as well.

Chris Ingraham: But also, the origin story that he tells about the street art. So in 2009, he does this Big project where he's going to enlarge these things and put them up. One of his first places he wanted to put up a mural was of some code talkers, Navajo code talkers. And he did that on ... If you've driven through the reservation, you see that there are a number of street-side stalls where people will often sell jewelry or trinkets and so on. And one of them was dilapidated, but it was red and so it had a very nice background.

Chris Ingraham: And so he posted this image of these code talkers there. And over the ensuing weeks, tons of people had apparently stopped to take photographs of it, tourists passing through. And so what happened was, the shelter had been, or the roadside stand had been beat up. And Thomas drove by one day and saw that the workers who usually worked there we're repairing it. And they said, "We need to make this operational now and make this better, because people are stopping all the time now."

Chris Ingraham: And so I think they realized that this is cool. This is actually helping the community in a material way. And also, it wasn't just people from outside, it was also people inside the community, in the Dine, who liked it.

Jana Cunningham: And so we talked about the Big project, which is these huge murals. What about the Painted Desert project? From what I understand, is connecting other artists with communities in the Navajo Nation through these murals. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what its purpose and impact is?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah. That started, I think, in 2009. No, sorry. He started wheat pasting in 2009 and he started the Painted Desert thing in 2012. But Thomas is not just interested in being a doctor and living on the reservation, he also is interested in the broader street art community around the world. He's active on these street art blogs. He's part of that scene, even though he is not in a place that you would think of as the epicenter of that scene.

Chris Ingraham: And so he started this project called the Painted Desert that brought artists from really, from all over the world. I mean, we're talking street artists from Belgium, Puerto Rico, Canada, Iran, Columbia, Brazil, all over, plus all over United States, to come to the Navajo Nation and do installations of a similar sort as the kind he did. Except of course, all these artists have different aesthetics and different ways of doing what they do.

Chris Ingraham: But the fundamental idea was, come engage with this community, recognize their value, find the beauty there and share it with other community members. And then also the people who drive through the Navajo Nation.

Jana Cunningham: And so you mentioned that you were just there and you were able to view some of the art over fall break. If someone's driving through, where ... Can you describe, I know it's a huge area, but can you describe where people might be able to see some of his artwork?

Chris Ingraham: Yeah. There's not a lot of roads. The main road, I can't remember the name of the highway that goes through there, but it takes you right by some, you can't miss some. I mean, there's not a whole lot of buildings. So when you see a building, just be on the lookout. There's a good chance you'll see something. And because Jetsonorama's work is, and I use his artist name because I'm referring to his work I guess, it has a distinct look. It's usually black and white, large images, often portraits. They will be pretty apparent.

Chris Ingraham: But there's also, I think, because of the Painted Desert project, a number of other installations that are pretty cool. So those might be more not graffiti, but aerosol based and colorful. And you can just tell they have a different vibe and different form or set of techniques.

Jana Cunningham: And before we end, is there anything else you would like to add? Is there anything that we should know about Chip Thomas before we close?

Chris Ingraham: Well, I think a couple of things. One is that, for me anyway, I don't know if I can make any broader generalizations, he's taught me that art is always more valuable when it has a local impact. And also that it's a fallacy to separate art as beauty from art as social meaning, or as social meaning making. It helped in some ways establish the community as such. It helped achieve recognition of the Dine people to some degree for people outside of those lands. And so I think that's a really lovely and powerful thing.

Chris Ingraham: I think another thing I would just say in closing is, if you go to his website and you're traveling through the Navajo Nation, he's got a map, a Google map-

Jana Cunningham: Oh, great.

Chris Ingraham: ... of all the different sites where he's put something up. And I don't know how frequently updated it is because these sites change, and of course some of them get pasted over again or some of them fall apart or something.

Chris Ingraham: But that's an interesting way to do it, particularly because it gets you off the main beaten paths. You're often on dirt roads doing ... And I've followed these things around and it's a wild goose chase. And feels really different than when you're walking through, I don't know, downtown New York or something and looking for street art there than when you're looking on the Navajo Nation.

Jana Cunningham: I will say for anyone interested in viewing some of this artwork, you can visit And that is Or of course, you can just Google Chip Thomas and it'll pop right up.

Jana Cunningham: That was Chris Ingraham, associate professor of communication. For more information about the University of Utah, College of Humanities, please visit, and don't forget to subscribe to Humanities Radio.

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Season 4, Episode 6 - Native Places Atlas with Greg Smoak

Episode 6: Native Places Atlas
with Greg Smoak

In honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, Greg Smoak, director of the American West Center and associate professor of history, discusses the Native Places project. A partnership with the Digital Matters Lab, this project sets out to restore indigenous place names to major landscape features and historical and cultural sites with an interactive map centered on Utah.

Jana Cunningham: Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities.

Jana Cunningham: Today, in honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, I'm speaking with Greg Smoak, Director of the American West Center and Associate Professor of History, about the Native Places project. This digital humanities project sets out to restore indigenous place names to major landscape features and historical and cultural sites with an interactive map centered on Utah.

Jana Cunningham: So, let's just begin. What led you to begin this project of restoring indigenous place names to the different areas in Utah and the Mountain West as well?

Greg Smoak: Well, there are a couple of factors involved here. Being involved in public history, one of the big themes or one of the big issues in the last decade or so has been memory and reinterpretation. And we see this most clearly in the removal of statues, in obviously the Confederate statues, but also the renaming of particular places. And this is an ongoing process, a cultural and historic process. And a few years back, I was preparing a talk for a professional meeting and I just happened to be talking with Forest Cuch, former Director of Indian Affairs for the State of Utah, who's a member of the youth tribe. And I don't know how it came up, but I started talking about this paper and how I was going to talk about the renaming of Grandstaff Canyon, which is just outside of Moab, Utah, and the implications of the former name of the place, which is quite infamous, quite well known, which included a racial epithet in its name.

Greg Smoak: And Forest said to me, "well, you know, that place had a Ute name before that even". And so I thought, well, he's absolutely right. What was that? What was the Ute name of that canyon? And he did not know offhand and other folks did not. I'm still kind of searching for that one, but that also got me thinking about some other things I had noticed in the past. One was a map that was created by a graduate student in Oklahoma, who was a native graduate student. And in, I think, a very important and well-meaning idea, created a map of North America with tribal names put onto that map.

Greg Smoak: The problem with it though, that immediately jumped out at me, was I looked at the state of Utah and there was only one tribal name on the map, and that was Ute, and it was written across the Eastern margin of Utah into Colorado. And it just struck me that that really could be misleading, that that could lead many people to say, well, there were no native people here, right?

Greg Smoak: And then the final part of this was thinking about a very impressive, very wonderful book by an anthropologist named Keith Basso called Wisdom Sits in Places. And in that book, what Basso did, and he had a different kind of project than what we're doing, but he worked directly with Western Apache people in Arizona on a project to record place names for cultural sites, historically meaningful sites for Apache people. And in that book, he makes very clear how much history, how much culture is bound up in place names, these deeper meanings that come with them.

Greg Smoak: And so all of these ideas go to spinning around. I thought, well, one way we could approach this was to think about Utah, think about the Intermountain West, and the way in which place names that we think of today are these artifacts of colonization. And think about what were those native place names before.

Greg Smoak: Unlike what Basso did with the Apache people, we're not trying to seek out culturally meaningful places per se, but think about those big landscape features: mountain ranges and mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes. All of these types of places that people encounter all the time where the names are kept by the United States Geological Survey's Bureau of Geographic Names. So these are official US government place names. And think about how can we then restore the original place names, the indigenous place names, so that people can learn more about native history and culture and territory.

Jana Cunningham: So let's talk about colonization for a second. When, and why essentially, were the names of these places changed? What was the purpose?

Greg Smoak: Well, mapping is a colonial process. And so to not directly address the question first, let's talk about what maps are.

Jana Cunningham: Okay.

Greg Smoak: Maps are visualizations that convey a set of relationships. That's what a map is. We can think of a mental map and think of a topographic map and so on, but they're visualizations that convey relationships. And in that case there are, in a sense, contests over reality. There's a real world out there, there's a physical world, but we represent it in particular ways, with different scales and different levels of abstractness. That's what maps are. Maps were a tool from the very beginning of colonization to make landscapes, so to speak, legible to colonizers to understand what's out there.

Greg Smoak: When you went then to configure these maps and give them names, there were a number of choices you could make. And in many cases, native place names or versions of native place names actually do still exist. The Wasatch Range is a great example of that. But in many other cases, the ways in which maps are written then erase the native place names and instead insert the names of the colonizers.

Greg Smoak: Whether this is not essentially an intentional process, it still reflects the process of colonization. So people come in, they will attach names to major geographic features that reflect their culture, their history, the people that they look to as heroes. And often this falls to government explorers or the first Euro-Americans in particular areas. And again, often they're government explorers.

Greg Smoak: For instance, if we look at Great Salt Lake, there are early names and colloquial names attached to various places, but it's Howard Stansbury, a government surveyor that names all of the islands in Great Salt Lake. And he names them after people who work for him in some cases, like Carrington and Gunnison.

Greg Smoak: Mormon settlers named the Heber Valley for Heber C Kimball who was very active in missions in England. And most of those early Mormon settlers in the Heber Valley were English. They had fond memories of him. So they're inscribing their history and their culture on the landscape by doing it and making it then understandable to themselves.

Jana Cunningham: So what is the impact? So when the indigenous place names were changed, what was the impact on the native people, the immediate impact and the lasting impact?

Greg Smoak: Well, the immediate impact is that I think it really reflects Indian removal. The idea that these were native lands and take, for instance, the Ute Nation In Utah, the Ute tribe of Utah, which is headquartered in the Uinta Basin at Fort Duchesne, that was definitely Ute land, but so was the Heber Valley. So was especially big portions of the Wasatch Front and the Sanpete Valley. So as people are removed, they are physically removed, but then they are historically and culturally erased as well. This is a process that many historians write about and talk about today, of settler colonialism, of removing, not just physically removing people from the landscape, but also erasing that history and then claiming that land in a much more full way. And so that's sort of the immediate impact as it's related to that removal.

Greg Smoak: The long term impact is...similarly it's the erasure of history. And I think that this also impacts living native peoples as current generations may not retain knowledge of these names. They're not in general use. And so over time, it becomes harder and harder and harder to recover those names and to restore them to the map. And certainly we're going to keep working on this project, but it's a long term project and it's one that will never be complete, nor will we ever get near, in the long run, some kind of complete understanding of native place names in Utah.

Jana Cunningham: So what does it mean for native people to have a map like this that does restore the indigenous place names? And what does it mean for the people in Utah and the Mountain West, in general, to know what the original names were?

Speaker 3: Well, again, I think that restoring history and restoring and understanding of native territory and sovereignty is probably something that the tribes will value greatly. To say that we've gone through a process here at the University of Utah to create a land acknowledgement statement, and land acknowledgements are great, but they really need to be backed up by action by the organizations that create them. And in a way, I think this can be a fuller land acknowledgement, by a visual illustration, to non-native people in Utah of the fact that this is native land, to understand that people lived here, that they had histories here. And to understand that.

Speaker 3: Hopefully, it'll also be useful to native people and to tribal governments in various ways. I think one of the ways that I'm very hopeful that this can be used is in terms of language preservation projects. That one of the ways to teach children and to restore the teaching of native languages would be through the use of place names. That's a pretty common technique. When anyone learns a language, one of the first things they learn is what place names are in that language. And so I think that's going to be pretty effective.

Speaker 3: I think it's also going to be hopefully useful in terms of heritage preservation, as a way to preserve tribal history and culture. In that regard, our map uses a secondary database program called [inaudible 00:12:16], which is developed by Washington State University. And what that will allow tribes to do that work with us is to protect some of that cultural capital, some of that information. So if they only want tribal members to know particular things, and again, here, I'm thinking mostly about more sensitive cultural areas and sites that the general public does not need to know about. It's one thing to put a name on the Uinta Range or King's Peak or Great Salt Lake. It's another thing entirely to identify the location of a sacred site. We don't want to do that. What we want to do is allow the tribes to perhaps preserve that information and control access to that.

Speaker 3: So I think there's a lot of different ways that this could be useful. A number of people have raised the question of renaming again. Can this be used to address some of the issues with offensive place names? And the answer is yes. It wasn't the original intention but it certainly could. For instance, there are over 50 points in Utah that have the word "squa" attached to the name. And this is an issue that the equivalent of the Board of Geographic Names here in Utah is aware of and has been dealing with for years. But I think if this map could be used to illustrate alternate names that were respectful of native history and culture, then all the better. Again, that wasn't the initial purpose of the map. So I think there's a lot of ways that it can be useful.

Jana Cunningham: So tell us a little bit about how to use this map because I was looking at it and it goes into a lot of detail and there are a lot of points that I suspect have taken a lot of research and a lot of work to do. So tell us a little bit how you search through the map and what you can find on this map.

Greg Smoak: Okay. Well, the map has currently 500 or 600 different points on it. That's going to continue to grow as we begin a much more engaged process with tribes to consult with them. But in general, what users can do is to... Let me say it this way, there's a menu on the map that allows you to search via the feature type (mountains, rivers, and streams, canyons, et cetera).

Greg Smoak: You can also search via language groups, right? So there are eight federally and state recognized tribes within the state of Utah. But instead of going down to that detail, what we've done was stick with the five cultures\language groups. So Shoshone, Paiute, Navajo, Goshute and Ute, right? And so you can search by the language group, or you can search by both. If you want to find what are the Goshute names for mountains in Utah, you can toggle on Goshute and mountains and you'll get all of that.

Greg Smoak: You can also see overlap with the map in that way. And I think that's an important factor of this map. Rather than just writing a tribal name across a map in a particular place, what you see is people's use, people's understanding. You see where people ranged, where they lived, where they overlapped, right? And you find a lot of that in Utah and in the Intermountain West.

Greg Smoak: Other parts of the map features... Let me think of what else I should say, I should say that it does move beyond the state of Utah. And that was a important and early decision on my part. And that's because the traditionally associated tribes in Utah weren't defined by modern rigid boundaries that are drawn on a map, right? We think of the American West and there are basically artificial boundaries in the American West between states. They are straight lines that just go in one direction or the other, and they divide the American West into these big squarish states.

Greg Smoak: There's only a few examples where mountain ranges or the Snake River between Idaho and Oregon is an example of a natural boundary, right? But for the most part in the west, we don't see that. And so those are artificial boundaries. For native peoples, they're doubly artificial. Shoshone people moved in and out of what is today, Utah, but it was still their homeland, ditto for the Utes and Goshute people who today... The confederated tribes of the Goshute reservation live right on the border with Nevada. And so it's silly to say, we're just going to do this map within the state of Utah. We want to make sure that if we're going to privilege native place names, we also privilege native understandings of territory.

Jana Cunningham: And one thing I liked that I found really interesting about the map is that when you toggle on places, it pops up with a little box and it tells you the native place name, but it also tells you what that name means.

Greg Smoak: Right. What the translation is.

Jana Cunningham: The translation. I found that really interesting, because you can go through and see what the translation of all these place names are. And I found that to be a really interesting part.

Greg Smoak: Yeah. We're hopeful that in the future, what we're going to do, and in expanding the map, is to add more features to those boxes, including hopefully photographs. But most importantly, I want to include sound files of native speakers pronouncing the names.

Jana Cunningham: Oh, that'd be great.

Greg Smoak: So they're not mispronounced, so they're not misunderstood. I think that would be a real bonus. And again, to privilege native cultures, languages and history, we have to do that.

Jana Cunningham: Yeah. So what are some... Can you just provide a few examples before we end of maybe some of the major landscapes, what the original names were and what the translations were?

Speaker 3: Sure. I think one of the more obvious ones is the Timpanoquint River, which today is called the Provo River. And the Ute people who lived in the Utah Valley, or the Timpanogos Utes. And so Timpanoquint in reference to the river means river with rocky bottom or rocky river. When Mormon pioneers moved in in 1850 and there was a conflict with the Utes, they first named the settlement Fort union, but then they named it...excuse me, Fort Utah, then they named it Provo. And the name Provo comes from Etienne Provost, who was a French Canadian fur trapper who worked out of Taos, New Mexico, and in 1825, arguably became the first Euro-American to see Great Salt Lake. So that's sort of his claim to fame and he started a trading post in the area. But I mean, he has a very brief tie, but again, this shows you that kind of renaming to celebrate colonization, right? So we're going to privilege Provo instead though to name Timpanogos is attached to the mountain, which was again based on the people and the river,

Speaker 3: But that name gets obscured over time and stories and romantic stories about native warriors and princesses and so on. And so today, when people think of the Provo River, they think of the Provo River Canyon and so on, but it again has an important native name. So I think that's a very good example.

Jana Cunningham: Absolutely.

Greg Smoak: There are many others. Pi'a-pa in Western Shoshone is Great Salt Lake, it means big water. A variation on that means bad tasting water, which I think a lot of people probably say, okay, that's a pretty down to earth, literal naming. You see a lot of that. I guess my favorite example in Utah is Shash Jaaʼ, which is Navajo for Bears Ears. And bears ears, though, this is the amazing thing about that landscape feature, is that, literally in Navajo, it means Bears Ears, but so does the name, so does the Ute name, so does the Zuni name. And if you've ever been in that area, if you've driven south of Bears Ears especially, and look north of them, you go, oh, I see that.

Jana Cunningham: Yeah.

Greg Smoak: And all these different native people did and now there are multiple names for it, but all of them translate to Bears Ears. And that's one that stayed with us though. That's one that stayed on the landscape over time.

Jana Cunningham: And that's one of the things I liked about reading the translations, is a lot of them are all very literal.

Greg Smoak: They are, they can be quite literal.

Jana Cunningham: Yeah. So you just like understand the landscape purely by the name. So I found that really interesting.

Greg Smoak: Yeah. We're hopeful... This is maps, it's a work in progress. We continue to work on it today and are starting consulting with the tribes. We're waiting to hear back on a major NEH grant to expand this work. But either way, we will continue to gather place names. We began by doing the secondary research. We partnered with the Northwestern band of Shoshone Nation who already had done their own mapping projects. So a lot of the data you for Shoshone and Western Shoshone place names came from the Northwestern band of the Shoshone Nation. We are looking to build those kinds of partnerships with all the other tribes in Utah and build this map out so it can be used as an educational resource in public schools and tribal schools.

Jana Cunningham: That was Greg Smoak, Associate Professor of History and Director of the American West Center.

Jana Cunningham: For more information about the Native Places project, please visit

Jana Cunningham: And if you would like to learn more about the College of Humanities, visit

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Last Updated: 11/22/21