For many, names are just that – names, a method of identification. Behind names are the symbols and meaning they hold, so by referring to something by its name, we are also referring what the name represents. This brings into question of who and what is behind the name Willamette.
WU has not always had its current name. During its first 11 years, WU had the name Wallamet University. According to WU’s website, in 1853, the Oregon Territorial Legislature held a session in the basement rooms of the University building and granted a charter to “Wallamet University.” According to Oregon Link, the term “Wallamet” is a Native American word, but the meaning is unknown, although there are several theories about the term’s origin. One accepted theory is the name means “spillwater” among Native Americans. When WU was founded, it naturally decided to name itself after the river.
The term “Wallamet” eventually morphed into “Willamette.” According to History of the Willamette Valley, this was due to the fact that many believe the name was of a French origin. Today, the name is constantly mispronounced by those not from the area. If you are, for some reason, still clueless about how to pronounce the term Willamette, there is simple mnemonic device to help you remember it: Willamette rhymes with dammit. According to the website Art of Living on the Road, the phrase “It’s Willamette Dammit!” has become the unofficial slogan of the Willamette Valley. In fact, shirts have even been printed with the slogan.
However, it is also important to respect Indigenous names. According to a Psychology Today article, Native American names are drawn from nature, and many nature-inspired names have fell out of favor over time. As described by the article, Native Americans names, especially for individuals, are full of meaning.
“Native Americans inspire us to think about our names as allegory — with multiple dimensions,” Psychology Today stated. “To remember that we are on a linear voyage in life, that we should be constantly changing and growing, that our identity consists in how we are seen and judged by others — by what we give, not by what we take.”
By referencing the name Willamette, not only are we referring to the University, we are referring to the culture of the Native Americans who were here long before the school was.
But sometimes, the names we use so frequently for reference do not carry positive connotations. According to the Pioneer Log, Lewis & Clark (L&C) college in Portland is currently debating on whether it should change its name due to the fact that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were slave owners. This reflects Oregon’s infamous history of racism, as Oregon’s original constitution forbade black people to live in the state.
Unlike L&C’s name, WU was named after a geographical feature — known as a toponym — but other buildings on WU’s campus were named after people. As can be seen at L&C, by doing this, those people’s ideologies are also being promoted. Although WU’s name does not represent anyone is particular, some buildings on campus do. For example, the Mark O. Hatfield Library was named after governor Hatfield, a Republican and WU alum. Hatfield was Governor from 1959 to 1967 and, according to The Oregonian, Hatfield attempted to combat Oregon’s racist history by prohibiting discrimination in public accomodations. Hatfield did so after witnessing that African Americans could not stay in Salem hotels at the time when he was a WU student. But Hatfield also faced scandals. The Oregonian also reported that his wife “accepted $55,000 related to real estate work from a businessman who had a contract before Congress,” and Hatfield also did reveal that he accepted $42,000 from friends and lobbyists. It was then revealed that the $55,000 was actually given to win senator support for construction of a trans-African pipeline.
“By referencing the name Willamette, not only are we referring to the University, we are referring to the culture of the Native Americans who were here long before the school was.”
Other buildings on campus were named after donors, such as Hallie Ford, a philanthropist who gave millions of dollars to support art institutions in Oregon and Oklahoma, according to Oregon Encyclopedia.
Individuals aside, WU’s name that we frequently reference symbolizes the culture indigenous to the Salem area, and therefore it is important to recognize the meaning of the name. Although much of the meaning is forgotten, the preservation of the name shows that the culture is not.