by Matt Duques
I am new to Chestnut Hill. My family and I moved into our new house about a month ago.
We are currently still figuring out what is here and what is not, how best to get from point A to point B.
We arrived at a perfect time to make these sorts of discoveries. The Home and Garden festival was underway when our moving truck showed up. Local elections were about to happen as we began unpacking our boxes. Parks were full of kids excited by the prospect of summer in the offing, and runners and dog walkers were making their rounds all day. Kousa dogwoods and roses seemed to be blooming on each side street.
When we took a break from our tiring move-in activities, we found much to remind us that we had made the right decision when we chose to leave the South and to move to this neck of the woods.
By training, I am a cultural critic, though, so I am primed to be a little skeptical of such apparent wonders. It is a trait, I admit, which is not particularly helpful when you are trying to settle into a new place, enjoy a glass of wine on your porch, appreciate beauty, go shopping, etc. During our settling- in phase thus far, one feature of this neighborhood has taken shape as worthy of a bit of pointed observation, if not outright critique: the handful of American Indian names on Chestnut Hill street signs: Cherokee, Seminole, Shawnee, Navajo, and Huron. Why are these nation’s names on the tony backstreets that descend toward the peaceful haunts of Valley Green?
It is, of course, common for a city or town in the United States to be defined by a mixture of native and foreign place names. Philadelphia is no exception. Algonquin names, many of which are specific to eastern Pennsylvania, abound as signs of the region’s long pre-Columbian history as the inveterate home of different tribes. What distinguishes Chestnut Hill’s representation of Indians is the following: In an age in which we increasingly fetishize the local, these names are anything but.
Taken together with the sprawling Cherokee apartments and the discretely located Indian caricature on the austere Philadelphia Cricket Club sign, this fact seems, to a newcomer at least, to warrant further discussion.
Broad strokes of history offer some preliminary explanation. In the decades following the American Revolution, the new nation’s first “suburbs” were framed, in accordance with classical (Greco- Roman) republican thought. They were designed, that is, to be a sufficient distance from the corrupting tendencies of the polis and the market.
A stone’s throw from a growing metropolis and an untamed back country, theory goes, was the ideal place to nurture disinterested citizenship and, thereby, to ensure the longevity of a fragile constitutional republic. Across what we now call the Northeast, many of these proto-burbs were first conceived during the mid-19th century.
This was also the epoch of American Indian Removal, the period when many indigenous nations were forced by the state and federal government of the United States to relocate west and south. The Cherokee and the Seminole, among others, had to plod along the so-called Trail of Tears. Shawnee people were pushed south and west into Oklahoma. The Navajo, or the Dine, as they call themselves, had to track their epic Long Walk through the southwestern desert. The Huron or Wyandot were required to move from their eastern into bleeding Kansas territory.
Some of the white settler men who contributed to the design of these new burbs were veterans of ongoing Indians Wars. Some had trading and property interests on the country’s frontiers as well as the nationalized slave trade. Some were voracious readers who had never seen an American Indian, but who devoted much of their time to the study of indigenous cultures and to the acquisition of indigenous goods. Some were members of exclusive fraternal groups, much like the Cricket Club, in which it was common practice to spend the evening “playing Indian,” to use scholar Phil Deloria’s term.
Among these men, it must have seemed natural to include generic Indian figures and symbols on their club logos. Among the descendants of these men too, it must have seemed natural, down the road, to choose the Indian names of ostensibly remote, vanishing peoples for their streets. Herein lie the basic kernels of thought for a procedure that would define U.S. commercial and professional and amateur sports team branding for the next century or so.
Given the myth of William Penn as an exceptional friend to the Indians, it is not surprising that this sort of American branding would be as popular in places like Chestnut Hill. This desirable neighborhood began shifting from being more of a posh resort destination for the upper classes to being more of a wealthy “commuter” home near the end of Removal.
Just before the U. S. Civil War, Chestnut Hill was evolving into a relatively more developed place, one that appeared in need of a distinct local identity. Indigenous names like Lenape, Delaware, and Wyoming were too banal at that point to give the neighborhood cache qua authenticity. One had to be more creative in these woods.
More to the point, years later, it must have made a certain kind of ironic settler sense for the current streets to reference these beleaguered Americans Indian nations. The names evoked the idea that Chestnut Hill residents were indeed special locals. They had freed themselves up so they could ramble along these trails. Leaving behind an increasingly crowded industrial metropolis, they had found higher ground, forming a more hardy and moral group apart. These street names helped assert the idea that as these suburban people elected to go native, they would not become Native.
An easy argument can be made for doing away with the Cricket Club signage and logo. I can’t imagine even lifelong members of this high-end club complaining if they showed for a round of golf one day and saw a Wissahickon vista or a Euro-American visage in the place of the generic Indian bust on their country club sign. A new sign would not of course change the fact that the club is very nice, very old and very private.
I bring up the more general topic of native names and signs, though, not because I think any of them have to be discarded or necessarily changed. The hurried removal of what offends us rarely solves the problems we aim to address when we set out to dispose of an offensive image or word. At the same time, keeping the status quo is a non-starter for many of us.
I suspect many American Indians and immigrants today would have something instructive to say on this subject. Moreover, the immigrants who become settlers and who live their lives shuttling between the idea of being native and foreign, local and exogenous, will also have something to say about this issue.
I suppose all I wonder here is if Chestnut Hill residents have ever had a thoughtful conversation about the area’s American Indian history and about current representations of and by American Indians. If so, what came of it? If not, perhaps it is time to broach the subject. An event launched by the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and/or the library, organized around Red Matters could help us teach ourselves and our kids about the life that American Indians and settlers built here long before it was Chestnut Hill.
Such an event could ultimately improve how we relate to each other-to visitors, newcomers and locals. It could also productively change how we relate to this place, including its more-than human woods and parks. It could even add nuance to our conversations about current political events. For these reasons alone, I would welcome and help sponsor such an event. Any thinking that ensued from this learning opportunity, I would have to imagine, is a better indication of justice and equity to come than anything we might have thrown up or thrown out on our streets, yards and clubs.
Matt Duques is associate professor of English at the University of North Alabama. He is the author of several articles and book reviews and the co-editor of the forthcoming academic book “Classical Encounters in Early America.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org