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Planetary Nomenclature and Indigenous Communities (Tiscareno et al., 2020)

In preparation for the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, many within the scientific community put forth papers addressing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility concerns in the profession. A diverse group of topics were presented including LGBT inclusion, mental health concerns, pandemic response, and many others. While they are all worthy topics, I have chosen to discuss this white paper on how Native and First Nations cultures can be respectfully and inclusively used for representation and to celebrate heritage.

For most of Western history, discoverers drew inspiration from the Romans and Greeks. This is certainly not surprising given the dominance of Latin culture amongst academics since the Late Medieval Period. This preoccupation with Greco-Roman mythology was present during the first major phase in telescopic planetary discovery and nearly every major and minor planetary body in the Solar System have this origin. Through the 19th century locations were being named at the whim of the discoverer. The International Astronomical Union was formed in the early 1900s and one of it’s goals was to regulate naming conventions in astronomy and planetary science. It was able to control the naming of Lunar craters and basins and was adopted once discoveries advanced during the early Space Race. Still, naming conventions were dominated by Western culture.

By the 1970s there were attempts within the IAU to address the saturation of European culture in planetary science. There were broad calls for “worldwide representation” to represent the diversifying scientific community that had been emerging. Despite this, most of the decision makers were from Europe and North America making the sole choices. It was during this period that the features that I study, Her Desher (Egyptian name for the planet Mars) and Nirgal (Babylonian God of War) Valles, were named.

Going forward, however, some had objected to the practice being used. While it was certainly a step in the right direction, and conceding that news features would continue to need new names, some critics have spoken out about this practice, deeming it a noble but problematic example of cultural appropriation. While the intentions of this movement were genuine, at it’s core it could be viewed as a placation and often lacked representation and collaboration to back it up.

An example of the issues that arose can be illustrated with the NameExoWorlds project. In 2019, the IAU held a naming contest for exoplanets that was themed around indigenous languages; each representative country would take suggestions from the public and would narrow the list down, eventually naming the exoplanets. In the US, most of the names were of natural wonders, names of sun-gods, translations of the word “star.” Tiscareno et al. suggest that the naming contest was flawed from the start and could have been improved in a number of ways including direct solicitation of Indigenous leaders and representatives, and by ensuring that indigenous names are only chosen from members of that specific tribe or nation. Another example of a flaw in this system was evidenced with the naming of the Trans-Neptunian Object in Kuiper Belt previously called 2014 MU69 and Ultima Thule. With neither of those names being deemed appropriate for this object, APL decided to propose a new name: Arrokoth, meaning “sky” in Powhatan. Tiscareno et al. viewed the process as rushed and sudden and that, from in indigenous point of view APL had “arrive[d] with an agenda already in place, obtain[ed] what they want[ed] from the Native American community, and then conclude[d] the relationship.” The naming of interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “scout,” was cited as a success in using indigenous names in planetary science. The Hawaiian observatories had a pre-existing, diverse body for the naming of objects discovered by the telescopes and having indigenous leaders involved in the naming process from the start was seen as very beneficial and welcoming.

Naming ceremony for Arrokoth performed by a Powhatan tribal elder

Tiscareno et al. ultimately suggest that scientists re-evaluate their role as sole discoverer and instead suggest that naming should be collaborative, preferably with a diverse  and inclusive team. This burden is not only on the academic team but should also come from NASA to build a stronger connection to Indigenous communities.


Published by Anthony Dicecca

Hello and welcome to my blog. I am Anthony Dicecca, and I am currently pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. I am a native of Rochester, New York but moved to London, Ontario to attend the University of Western Ontario. From 2016 to 2020 I worked to complete my undergraduate degree, finishing with a BSc in Physics and a BSc in Geology. During this time I developed a passion for geology, and in particular, planetary science. I've had the pleasure of working with Dr. Gordon Osinski and his team during this time aiding in research ranging from Arctic peri-glaciology to global impact cratering, and from Lunar spectroscopy to Martian mapping. In Autumn 2020 I continued my education at the U.W.O., working towards a MSc in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. My research will likely involve insights obtained from the Holuhraun Lava Field in Iceland and their applications to other bodies in the Solar System. This blog serves as an archive of my progression over the next few semesters.

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