When Walter Santi first registered to vote on the eve of World War II, the official looked at his birthplace, raised an eyebrow and asked skeptically, "Are you a citizen?"
A native of Swastika, N.M., the 89-year-old Santi has outlived his birthplace.
"It changed its name from Swastika to Springer before World War II," says Santi, who has lived in Bloomingdale since the 1970s. After the war, the old coal mining town folded up shop. The only things left from that town might be Santi and a historic postcard showing the town's "Swastika Hotel" with a sign that sports a symbol that now represents 20th century evil.
"It is the very hotel my parents held their wedding reception and where I would later be born across the street in Swastika, New Mexico, within distance of the old Santa Fe Trail ruts," says Santi, who was born in 1923.
The symbol now synonymous with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis has been around for 5,000 years, notes Santi, who researched the swastika. A book with the title, "The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol," was written by the curator of the U.S. National Museum and published way back in 1894, long before the symbol was hijacked by Hitler.
Santi's birthplace took the symbol from local American Indians, who had long considered it good luck. The town began a series of name-changes in 1935, and the souvenir shops selling local artifacts with the symbol were told to "lay off the logo for a while," Santi recalls.
The Nazi swastika looks exactly like the one on the Swastika Hotel. But other swastikas are a mirror image. You can still find versions of swastikas on buildings in Chicago and the suburbs, perhaps most famously on the famed temple of the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette. Santi says he would like to see society reclaim the swastika, and turn it from a "token of hate" back into a "good luck token."
But no matter how much noble history that symbol has on its side, the swastika is never going to make a comeback. The horror of the 20th century trumps all those centuries of good feelings that symbol used to engender. Symbols matter.
While Shakespeare made a point about a rose still being a rose no matter what name we give it, names matter, too. Society's perceptions of a name can change. In 1997, after more than 125 years as Gay Head, Mass., the Martha's Vineyard town changed its name to Aquinnah. Beaver College, founded in 1853 as a small women's college in Pennsylvania, changed its name to Arcadia University in 2001.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Namesmeets monthly to ponder the names of all our physical and cultural geographic nomenclature.
"We don't take places off the map. We rename them," says Lou Yost, executive secretary for domestic names for the federal government's geographic names board, which is part of the United States Geological Survey. The board is made up of members from the Department of the Interior, Homeland Security, the Postal Service, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, the departments of agriculture, defense and state and other related government agencies.
Only two names have been deemed "universally derogative" and no longer appear on any official government maps or documents, Yost says. The short slur for Japanese people was changed to "Japanese" in 1967 and "the pejorative form of 'Negro' was changed to 'Negro' in 1963," Yost notes.
Of course, the 15 Downstate landmarks in Illinois carrying that name (from Big Negro Creek in Warren County to Little Negro Lick in Macoupin County) can still make folks uncomfortable. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names hasn't received any official name-change requests from Illinois, but it does consider renaming a place when people complain. Yost says a summit in Idaho was changed to "Chinese Peak" after complaints that the original name contained an offensive term for Chinese people. However, another similarly named point just south of Annapolis, Md., kept its name because the word had nothing to do with Chinese people but was an American Indian word meaning "great" or "large."
The names of about 20 geographical features containing the word "squaw," which many people say is an offensive term, were changed recently in the wake of complaints, Yost says. But more than 1,000 places (mostly summits and creeks) still bear that name.
Santi's birthplace voluntarily changed its name, but off-roading, four-wheeling tourists out West can still stumble across a long forsaken site called Swastika Mine.
"I think," Yost says wryly, "it may have been named after Bill Swastika."