Morris: Indiana — What’s in a Name?

July 13, 2020

by Leo Morris

“Indiana” has to go, so we’ll need to come up with a new name for the state.

That’s not an outrageous statement. It can be logically inferred from remarks by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

At a recent press conference, a reporter hit the governor with a question that went something like: In light of recent debates over changing the names of sports teams and other entities with designations of Native American origin, do you support calls to change the name of the state?

There are many ways the governor could have responded.

He could have been straightforward one way or the other. Either, “I think that’s a suggestion worth considering” or else, “Lord, no, what a stupid idea.”

He could have even thrown his hands up in exasperation: “Look, I’ve had to deal with shutting down the state over virus fears and protests that threaten to explode into violence, and now you want me to deal with this, too? Give me a break.”

Instead, he gave an answer that should be studied by budding, fence-sitting equivocators everywhere as a case study in mealy-mouthed, insincere vacillation:

“I haven’t given that any thought,” he said, “although I’ve talked with Native American friends of mind about our shared past and our heritage.”

He said he has directed his administration “to do a better job sharing the story of Indiana. Sharing the story of who we are as a people, a very diverse people, and be able to share our successes, to be able to acknowledge our shortcomings, and deal with them.”

Whew.

I haven’t given it any thought. That means I’m not saying no, OK? Native American friends of mine. Some of my best friends, they know who they are. Our shared past and heritage. It was their land, now it’s ours, and I sincerely apologize for that. A very diverse people. Please forgive me for being a white male symbol of patriarchal oppression. Acknowledge our shortcomings. I am so, so, sorry, whatever is wrong, it’s all my fault, so please don’t hate me on Twitter.”

The governor’s mush will be chum in the water for the zealous sharks who started with Confederate generals and ended up defacing statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who seek to reshape our perceptions of the past as a way of owning the present moment and controlling the future.

So, get ready for the uphill battle to retain the state’s name

Indiana, for those who want to know a little history before it disappears, means simply “land of the Indians.” Explorers named it for the indigenous people they encountered because that’s the lesson they learned from Old World names: Bulgaria for “land of the Bulgars,” Vandalia for “the land of the Vandals” and so on. Kind of boring.

They needed a name because of a 5,000-square-mile parcel of land they acquired, not through viciously subjugating the native population but through, well, adjudication of a dispute.

The Iroquois Confederacy was what was called at the time a “civilized tribe,” which meant it built houses, cultivated land, developed the arts, engaged in trade, and, in the tradition of civilizations everywhere, conquered and subjugated other tribes, becoming eventually known as the Six Nations.

A Philadelphia trading company, a collection of European commercial entrepreneurs, entered a partnership with the Six Nations. In the fall of 1763, some members of the Shawnee and other tribes controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy attacked a group of the traders and seized their goods. The Philadelphia company complained to the chiefs of the Six Nations, and demanded payment for their loss. The Iroquois admitted the validity of the claim but did not have the cash to settle it, so they gave land to the traders instead.

The land itself became the subject of a lengthy dispute that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually became a part of Virginia, which is somebody else’s story to tell.

But the name was left over, just hanging out there waiting to be used. In 1800, when Congress divided the Northwest Territory and created Ohio out of the eastern part, it needed to call the rest of it something, so it plucked Indiana out of the dusty archives.

There you have it. Our name came from an Old World habit, was forged not in the horrible crucible of war but in the mundane transactions of commerce and was thrust upon the state like a hand-me-down frock from a more prosperous relative. Abandoning it would change nothing, symbolize nothing, prove nothing, ultimately mean nothing.

But it would allow our craven leaders to appear courageous and forward looking, our opportunistic politicians to seem principled, our depraved poseurs of virtue to take on the trappings of piety.

Which suggests a perfect replacement name.

Seth Pecksniff was a character in Charles Dickens’ novel “Martin Chuzzlewit.” He was an architect who, according to Merriam-Webster, had a holier-than-thou attitude. He “liked to preach morality and brag about his own virtue, but in reality he was a deceptive rascal who would use any means to advance his own selfish interests.

“It didn’t take long for Pecksniff’s reputation for canting sanctimoniousness to leave its mark on English; ‘Pecksniffian’ has been used as a synonym of ‘hypocritical’ since 1849.”

Today, it tends to mean “hypocritically and unctuously affecting benevolence or high moral principles.”

So, welcome to the future state of Pecksniffia. You should probably stop calling yourself Hoosiers now, you rascals.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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