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Know Your Place: Stories behind Sonoma County place names

Temelec has a bitter history

Temelec, a subdivision in southwest Sonoma Valley, takes its name from a native village. Though its meaning in the Miwok language is uncertain (at least to nonspeakers), the place is bound up in some of the darker aspects of our history.

The development takes its name second-hand from Temelec Hall, built by pioneer Granville Swift, who made a fortune in gold and cattle. Born in Kentucky, Swift came west with his friend Franklin Sears (for whom Sears Point is named). Swift became a captain during the Bear Flag Rebellion, helped design the Bear Flag and got rich during the Gold Rush.

On the surface, it’s a romantic tale. But if history is to be more than an exercise in nostalgia, we need to view it with a clear eye. How exactly did Swift get rich? A roadside marker offers a clue. It tells how he constructed the “first house in Glenn County” using “Indian labor,” had “herds of cattle … tended by indian vaqueros,” and made a fortune mining “with his Indian laborers.”

When Swift moved to Sonoma Valley, he built the Southern-style mansion that he called Temelec Hall. Taking the old village name, he mistreated the people from whose language it came. Forced to labor with cannonballs tied to their ankles, they were chained in his basement at night. His laborers were in fact slaves. With that perspective, Swift’s fortune is not something to admire.

“Say their names!” protesters are shouting in memory of those killed by police. Monuments to Confederates and others are being toppled all over. Place names, too, are being reconsidered. It’s tempting, and sometimes appropriate, to change them. But there’s a risk of forgetting the stories of places like Temelec. Stories that remind us how we got here.

So what is the way forward?

One possibility is suggested by the traditions of the Western Apache, described in Keith Basso’s book “Wisdom Sits in Places.” A person who violates tribal ethics is not confronted directly. Instead, someone (typically an older woman) stands up at a gathering and tells a story connected to a particular place. The transgressor, though not identified, realizes that they are the target and feels regret and shame. They say it’s like being “shot with an arrow.” From then on, both the place and its name remind that person how to “live right.”

Say someone is being greedy and unwilling to share. A story is told about a village with an abundant harvest that the people refuse to share with their hungry neighbors. So the neighbors come and trap the villagers inside their houses. The villagers have plenty to eat, but now have to defecate inside their homes. The smell gets bad and pretty soon the villagers start getting sick. Eventually they give in and share their harvest. But the village is so contaminated that they abandon it. Even today no one lives there. The place where this happened is called “Smells Like Shit.” It’s a graphic reminder to be generous.

The story of Temelec reminds us of our national story: of the conflict between “All people are created equal” and the ugliness of racism. And that meaningful change requires a deeper look at our romantic notions of ourselves and our shared history.

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