The Audubon Legacy, or What’s in a Name

John James Audubon

John James Audubon was an adventurer, naturalist, artist, woodsman, and storyteller. Most of us know him as a great champion of birds who traveled to North America in the early 19th century, with a determination to document all the birds living on this continent.

His legacy is preserved in the National Audubon Society, and in the birds that bear his name – Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole. But Audubon was also a slaveholder, “a man of his time” as the argument goes, and disdainful of the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

His legacy is preserved in the National Audubon Society, and in the birds that bear his name – Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole. But Audubon was also a slaveholder, “a man of his time” as the argument goes, and disdainful of the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the National Audubon Society considered changing its name, on March 16th, 2023, they posted the following statement on their website: “The Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society (NAS) today announced that it has decided to retain the name of the organization, after a lengthy process to examine its name in light of the personal history of its namesake, John James Audubon. The decision was made taking into consideration many factors, including the complexity of John James Audubon’s legacy and how the decision would impact NAS’s mission to protect birds and the places they need long into the future. The organization will continue its non-partisan commitment to habitat conservation and climate action, its agenda-setting policy work, and community-building efforts to advance its mission.”

Five Valleys Audubon Society (FVAS) is the Missoula chapter of the NAS. Our chapter formed in 1977 and is one of nine Audubon Society chapters in Montana. We promote the conservation of natural resources through our birding, education, and conservation activities. We are committed to our mission:

  • Encouraging the enjoyment of wildlife and our natural heritage.
  • Educating others about wildlife and the need to live in harmony with nature.
  • Advocating actions that favor wildlife and environmentally sensitive uses of resources.
  • Supporting research on wildlife and the environment.
  • Sharing and supporting the values and objectives of the National Audubon Society.

Several FVAS Board members wrote thoughtful comments reflecting their views about changing the chapter’s name. I compiled these comments for the Board to discuss at our April Board meeting. Some Board members believe we must change our name eventually, some members do not share that belief, and others are undecided. It is a critical issue to discuss, no matter what we ultimately decide. I have included comments from Board members in this article that reflect the issues and feelings expressed:

“While the name has primarily been associated with birds and the beauty of birds for many decades, that just is not so anymore. As the full history of John James Audubon has come to light, the name is now associated with racism. While National Audubon and Montana Audubon have decided not to change their names, I think it is only a matter of time before they do. Our country is increasingly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Let’s not wait to change the Five Valleys Audubon Society (FVAS) name until we feel social pressure to do so. Let’s be bold and proactive by coming up with new names that reflect the group’s current values and that are respectful of the entire community.

Even if the Audubon name isn’t deterring anyone from joining FVAS currently, it may in the future, especially as we continue efforts to attract more young people. Words matter. Our name matters. If even just a handful of people in Missoula associate the Audubon name with racism, why not take this simple step forward? By changing the FVAS name, we will demonstrate our commitment to building an inclusive birding and conservation community and our ability to meet the community’s needs.”

    “It surprises me that NAS decided to keep the Audubon name while having recently developed programs targeted to young, urban populations (read ethnic minorities and people of color). My gut feeling is to gradually move towards changing our name, but to what? I like that Seattle Audubon has dropped the Audubon moniker, with a changed logo, while still working out an alternative name. This does seem like a process to undertake over time; in the meanwhile, it’s best to learn facts and other background info.”

    “FVAS has the opportunity to support a welcoming and inclusive birding community in Missoula. Whether or not FVA decides to change the name of the chapter at this time, I think it’s important to prioritize considering what future generations of birders and environmental stewards look like and understand how we can encourage their participation in the organization in order to maintain the FVAS mission for years to come.”

    “I submit the following thoughts concerning the question of changing our organization’s name:

    • To do so would be to forfeit a substantial weight of goodwill, which in business accounting refers to the value of an organization’s patronage, reputation, and the like, beyond its tangible assets. In the case of the Audubon name, that value is considerable: over a century’s worth of instant recognition as the oldest, most reliable, most trustworthy, most focused organization exclusively devoted to the conservation and appreciation of birds.
    • I suggest that after 110 years, the Audubon name in almost everyone’s mind has lost all reference to Audubon the man, and instead calls up for most of us the image of an organization of bird-lovers devoted whole-heartedly to birds, their beauty and their welfare. As with many names (such as Washington D.C., Washington State, etc), while the naming may have been originally intended to honor the namesake, over time it has lost virtually any reference at all to the historical person, and instead has evolved into the label for the entity named, and its characteristics and values.
    • What problem would we be addressing with a name change? Slaveholding – the fault we find in Audubon the man – is not the issue. The question of slavery in this country was settled 160 years ago – and not by any name-change, but by the deaths of 600,000 young men in the Civil War. Certainly, though, the vestiges of slavery remain. However, I don’t believe they taint our organization. In my experience, Five Valleys is as open and welcoming a group as anyone could wish. We almost beg people to join us. And I wonder if there is evidence that even one person, in this community or elsewhere, has been offended by our name during the nearly 50 years of our existence. If not, perhaps we ought to refrain from fixing what isn’t broken.
    • Are we nevertheless anxious about “affirming Audubon’s legacy?” A legacy refers to the primary inheritance we receive from a dead person, not to every aspect of his or her life. In Audubon’s case, that legacy is clear: his bird paintings and his prescient sense of the need for bird conservation. Accepting that legacy does not mean endorsing every aspect of the man’s life, whether it be his tendency toward excessive self-promotion, his profligate use of the shotgun, or his ownership of slaves in the 19th century. It’s unclear what changing our name would do for bird conservation, which is our mission. In that connection, I would suggest that our members pay their dues, and our donors direct their sometimes very substantial gifts to us in the expectation that we will use our resources to help birds–not engage in social commentary, or even social reform. Saving birds–and their (and our) earth–is becoming a gigantic, a nearly impossible, task. Let’s focus on that–as the many organizations going by the name of Audubon always have.”

    “I certainly condemn racism and the culture that allowed slavery to exist, as I think our Chapter should do as well. However, I don’t believe that condemning individuals from the past by denying their name will significantly help in diminishing racism. We need to look to the present not the past in identifying and condemning institutions that allow and support racism. If we focus on individuals who in the past believed in slavery, we also need to do away with all mention of Washington and Jefferson who both held slaves. Five Valleys Audubon is a chapter of the National Audubon Society, a long-standing, well known conservation organization. I believe our Chapter’s ability to accomplish conservation is greatly enhanced by the Audubon name. When we try to influence County and City leaders including elected officials our name containing Audubon gets more attention and respect because of the known conservation mission of the Audubon organization. I fear that eliminating Audubon from our chapter’s name would greatly diminish our ability to promote and influence conservation. I believe it is wise to remain as a chapter of National Audubon and as long as they retain the name Audubon, we should do so also.”

    The Board discussion was passionate, but thoughtful. Heated at times, but respectful. I offer these comments and perspectives for our membership to read and consider. Do we follow the example of the National and Montana Audubon Societies and retain our name for the foreseeable future, or do we begin the process of changing our name, in the not too distant future?

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