Seattle Audubon to change name, severing tie with slave owner
Updated: 38 a few minutes ago Published: 38 a few minutes ago
SEATTLE — The Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society has a new logo, at least for now: an elegant yellow bird, a pelagic cormorant to be exact, with a paintbrush in its beak and the word “Audubon” crossed out.
It marks a new era for the birdwatching and conservation group. Highlighting the racist actions and beliefs of its namesake John James Audubon, the local organization announced that it would change its name to better reflect its mission and values.
“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is contrary to the mission of this organization and its values,” Claire Catania, executive director of the Seattle chapter, said in a statement.
“Knowing what we know now and hearing from members of the community how harmful the name Audubon is to our cause, there is no choice but to change,” she said.
Aubudon was an artist and ornithologist whose extensive collection of watercolor illustrations depicting North American avian life made him a famous figure in the nature community.
He also enslaved people, rejected the abolitionist movement, and stole Indigenous human remains, sending them to a colleague who used the skulls to argue that white people were superior to all other races.
Notably, Audubon did not found the National Audubon Society or other bird-related groups that use his surname. According to the National Audubon Society, his name was used posthumously beginning in the 1880s and 1890s “because of his deep association with North American birds.”
Seattle is the first major chapter of the National Audubon Society network to announce it will be dropping the Audubon name, said Glenn Nelson, community director for the chapter and former Seattle Times reporter. Although the local chapter receives grants from the national organization, Nelson said the group remains largely independent.
In the wake of the national race toll following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, many environmental groups have begun to recognize the racist legacy of conservation icons like the Sierra Club’s John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, known as the Father of American forestry.
The Audubon Naturalist Society, an independent group based in Maryland and not affiliated with the National Audubon Society, announced last year that it would be changing its name to “signal a new chapter that builds on the strengths of our past and moving forward toward a stronger, more inclusive future.The organization is expected to announce its new name in October.
The Seattle chapter hopes to come up with a new name by the end of the year, Nelson said, with the process involving public discussions about the group’s name and mission.
The organization’s new name is unlikely to honor any historical person or figure, he said.
“It’s a first step, it’s going to be complicated,” Nelson said. “A lot of people cling to that Audubon name and feel like it’s a cancel culture.”
But Nelson said it’s a significant effort to make the community less elitist and more welcoming to people of color who have historically been excluded from birdwatching and outdoor spaces. The vast majority of Seattle chapter members are white and retired, Nelson said.
Beyond lifting the organization out of its namesake’s racist past, Nelson said dropping the Audubon name offers an opportunity to make the group “more accessible to communities we don’t now embrace.”
“It’s synonymous with birds, but I’ve been on the other side of the equation trying to recruit young people of color into the Audubon/conservation movement,” Nelson said. “I dare say that anyone under the age of 50 is either completely unaware of (the meaning of) ‘Audubon’ or has only a vague idea of it.”