Explore Blog

The Nature Center at Pia Okwai: The Story Behind the Name

Image: Attendees of board meeting when name change was approved pose in front of Pia Okwai. Left to Right in Back: Linda Jim (Advisor), Tim Brown (CEO), John Malooly (Treasurer), Tom Barton (Board), Emmanuel Santa-Martinez (Board), Jeff Jones (Director of Guest Experience), Anne Terry (Director of Education), Marissa Beckstrom (Director of Nature Center at Pia Okwai), Daniel Hernandez (Director of Culture), Maria Estrada (Board Chair), Kēhaulani Vaughn (Board), Maile Arvin (Board). Left to Right in Front: Mary Pendergast (Board), Kim Sorentino (Board).

On the 19th of September 2023 the board of trustees for the Tracy Aviary approved a name change for the Jordan River Nature Center to become “Nature Center at Pia Okwai”. The updated name is still in process of being officially rolled out, but it has been in use by many who spend a lot of time there already as patrons or staff. Official public announcements will be made as the completion of Phase II construction and planting continues to take place. Below is some of the story and background to why the name will be changed and the steps taken to make it happen.

The Jordan River in Utah is a name that is associated with re-making this place with a colonial image that sought to replace a deeper Indigenous relationship through violent means. This river in our contemporary moment has endured a legacy of being channelized and polluted, which now carries negative symbolism with its colonial name such as being dirty or unsafe. Yet, despite this, an ecological integrity remains, evidenced by the life that continues to rely on the river. As we invite communities and this society to enter into a new and healthier relationship with this river we must confront the colonial legacy and at the same time remember and imagine another possibility through the memory carried in Indigenous names. Indigenous names are important because:

Like statues and monuments, place names are cultural symbols that embody or erase Indigenous knowledges…Names embody ancient creation and origin stories, serve as mnemonic devices for Indigenous knowledges and memory, and recall generations of ancestors in relation with specific places … colonial place names can explicitly or unintentionally normalize and perpetuate hegemonic myths, naturalize racist structures and erase or displace Indigenous knowledges. (McGill, Borrelle, Wu, Ingeman, Uhuad Koch, and Barnd, 2022, p. 1)

There are various precedents for using Indigenous place names. These include: the international United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, the ethical responsibility to confront the impacts of genocide and ethnocide against Indigenous peoples, and the practical necessity for making urgently needed changes to how we live and relate to place through Indigenous ecological knowledges. 

I was personally ready for a name change upon my arrival at the end of 2022, and have been unofficially using it since then. However, after presenting to the board of trustees the proposal for an official name change of the Nature Center campus, there were some concerns raised that as an organization as a whole we needed to address. Concerns included: the status quo in our local setting that would need clear pathways to understand such a change; fears of tokenistic or virtue signaling approaches that lacked a collective investment across our organization; making thoughtful actions that lead to sustainable and systemic level results; and ensuring there is a diverse range of strategies and communities included in the process. My personal concern to add to that of the board of trustees included the need to improve on our recruitment and retention of more diverse staff at all levels of our organization with the social skills to work with Indigenous communities and communities of color because we cannot do diversity without diverse people (e.g., race, class, gender, ability, Indigeneity). Time will bear witness to the successes and limitations of our actions, which build on continued efforts from Tracy Aviary to improve on all fronts of diversity and equity.

I have now been with Tracy Aviary for one year and among my first tasks was to update our statement of place and support working towards meaningful acknowledgments of land and Indigenous peoples. I have shared some of the research behind these efforts in the posts Towards a Land Acknowledgment and Learning Local Indigenous Place Names as well as in an episode on my personal podcast Thinking about living in and relating better to this place. This was coupled with a policy change in our organization to provide free admission to members of the Tribal Nations occupied by the Utah territory. At that time with the support of Tracy Aviary leadership, I began to invest in making connections on behalf of our organization with a range of diverse Indigenous communities. 

I am grateful to have found great partners and support for the Nature Center at Pia Okwai with the Granite School District Title 6 program and in particular with the Li’l Feathers collective that represent a robust urban Indigenous community here in the valley. They were gracious enough to open up the 2023 Earth Day celebrations at the Nature Center at Pia Okwai and continue to have an ongoing relationship with us. Nature Center director Marissa Beckstrom and I attended the first Utah Tribal Leaders meeting of the 2023 year hosted by the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and we were later approved to share a presentation to them in the Spring of the same year. We had to confront an after the fact involvement with Tribal Nations and leaders because the Nature Center was already underway when both of us arrived to work here. In this colonial setting there were no requirements to get approval from tribes, but instead of government entities who claim ownership of the land the Nature Center now leases. We were reminded of this when we presented, because we had to ask for a blessing rather than permission since construction was already happening. However, after facing and working through this necessary discomfort as representatives of our organization, we shared actions we are taking such as our policy change that offered free admission to Tribal Nations, our promotion and use of Indigenous place names, and an invitation to all of Utah’s Tribal Leaders to visit both the Aviary and the Nature Center in the summer. We hosted several of Utah’s Tribal Leaders in June of 2023 and had the opportunity to share with them that we were going to propose an official name change to our board of trustees.

The Nature Center at Pia Okwai is not the first location to officially include a local Indigenous place name in the valley. There is the public site Galena-Soónkahni preserve that uses Soonkahni, which is Newe Taikwa (Shoshoni Language) for the name of this valley. There is also the community based Og-woi Peoples Orchard & Garden, which uses Og-woi, meaning river in Newe Taikwa as part of their name. In considering our official name change we have chosen to indicate being located at Pia Okwai (Big flow/river) because we do not own the name Pia Okwai and there are ongoing issues with corporations and other entities taking on Indigenous names or icons and attempting to patent or copyright them. For these reasons we have the name in this order. We identify one of the original Indigenous names for our location and pay our respects to place and the first peoples in our use of it in this way. Pia Okwai is also not only exclusively Utah’s “Jordan River”, there are other rivers and water flows that may carry this name throughout this region. The name Pia Okwai offers us Indigenous insights such as the memory of being five times larger than it currently is today. It also indicates a different perspective since it is a name that may be shared with other rivers. Instead of focusing on distinction, identifying similarity or connection was another way to relate to place(s) through shared names.

We are grateful for the support we have received from Tribal Nations and Urban Indigenous communities, as well as from a rich variety of local diverse peoples and communities who have both expressed interest, and supported practicing making better relations to place and first peoples. On behalf of the many passionate people in our organization who are keen to do conservation work more equitably the Nature Center at Pia Okwai is an exciting expansion to the Tracy Aviary legacy.

By: Arcia Tecun

Sign up with your email and be updated on all things Tracy Aviary!