Bob Julyan Chautauqua will take place on Friday

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FARMINGTON — Given his position as perhaps the foremost authority on place names in New Mexico, Bob Julyan obviously has an enormous amount of knowledge socked away about why the various communities and significant geographic features in the state are called what they are.

But he leaves the linguistics to somebody else.

"One of the things I don't try to do is, I don't try to tell people how to pronounce names," he said, laughing and explaining that the "correct" pronunciation of Madrid — a small mining town in Santa Fe County on the Turquoise Trail — or Rodeo — an unincorporated community in Hidalgo County in the state's boot heel — depends on whether you are a native Spanish or English speaker and where you traditionally put the accent.

Julyan is adept at avoiding such controversies through his work as the author of the reference volume "Place Names of New Mexico" and his longtime chairmanship of the New Mexico Geographic Names Committee. The Albuquerque resident will discuss his book and many of its more notable entries in a Chautauqua presentation planned for 7 p.m. Friday in the Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington.

Julyan, who has written various other books about the state, including hiking and field guides, revels in his work and understands the deep connection that exists between places and people.

"One of the points I make is that we are not neutral when it comes to place names," he said. "They are emotionally charged. They're not like zip codes. … If you want to create a kerfuffle, propose changing the name of a place. People will come out in droves."

Julyan's presentation takes approximately 45 minutes and is primarily oral, though he does like to hold up large, hand-drawn signs with names printed on them so everyone in the audience can read the name rather than just hear it. His Chautauqua is filled with stories of how those names came to be used, and Julyan prides himself on making his presentation something more than a dry, academic lecture.

"There's lots of humor in the talk," he said. "People love to be not just educated, but to be entertained, and I try not to disappoint them."

Given its mixture of Native, Spanish and Anglo cultures, New Mexico's place names are more entertaining than most. Julyan said many place names in the state actually have several names, depending on which culture is dominant.

"Mount Taylor probably has names in as many as nine different language," he said.

And in the case of some Native communities or geographic features, those places can have several names even within that culture.

"Native Americans don't have the same kind of naming traditions (as Anglo cultures)," he said. "They have layers of names. There are ceremonial names and names for everyday use. It's very complex."

One of the more interesting situations Julyan has experienced in his work on the New Mexico Geographic Names Committee involved a location in San Juan County, he said. A well-known pass between the Chuska and Tunicha mountains near the Arizona border had long been known as Washington Pass, which most people supposed was in honor of George Washington, he said.

But a group of Navajo college students began researching the subject in the early 1990s, and they discovered the pass actually was named for a U.S. Army officer named John Washington, the man who would be named military governor of New Mexico after the end of the Mexican-American War. Washington led an Army expedition to the Four Corners area, and during an encounter with a group of Navajos that began peacefully before turning violent, his troops killed six Navajos, including the revered warrior Narbona.

The students were aghast when they realized the pass on the Navajo Nation was named for Washington, Julyan said, and they successfully petitioned the committee for a name change to Narbona Pass honor the Navajo warrior who was killed during the encounter.

"It was like naming Hitler Avenue in Tel Aviv," Julyan said, adding that the change was also significant because it marked the first time a Native group had worked to designate a place name after an individual, something that long has separated Native and Angle cultures.

Julyan ends his Chautauqua by taking questions, and he said that portion of his presentation is his favorite because it's as educational for him as it is for the audience. He inevitably winds up collecting stories or information he wasn't aware of before, and Julyan carefully catalogs those tidbits in anticipation of producing a new edition of "Place Names of New Mexico," which is something he hasn't done in 25 years.

"I'm ready to another edition, and I keep a running file," he said.

Admission to Julyan's presentation is free. Call 505-566-3430 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

 

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