What’s In a Name

Have you ever thought about your last name? Where does it come from? What does it mean? How does one really live up to the name(s) given in this earthly realm? After presenting at a planning conference an attendee asked about my last name…”Wakan”, and wanted to know if it has any special meaning or significance (she previously learned I was Native American from the Sioux Tribe). In fact it does I told her, Wakan in the Sioux language has reference to spiritual, holy or sacred things, the opposite of how I felt about myself I joked. Wakan Tanka in Sioux translates to “the great mystery” referring to deity or God. She then continued to ask about my professional interests in urban planning and the source of my passion. I continued to explain to her about the human scale and why it’s important to design cities and places for people rather that for a car moving at 45 mph. I explained how people connect to parks, open space, trees, and architecture, which if done properly, creates a unique vitality that enlivens the soul. I told her it was my intention to help people make those connections through better planning and urban design. This woman then told me something that I will never forget, that indeed I was living up to my last name, that everything I did was spiritual in nature!



One of the prominent Native American figures (who also happens to be Sioux), was Crazy Horse. He received his name from a vision he had as a young man, “He went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one. He was on his horse in that world, and the horse and himself on it and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seemed to float. His horse was standing still there, and yet it danced around like a horse made only of shadow, and that is how he got his name.” Black Elk Speaks.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience…but spiritual beings having a human experience.” The natural and built environment impacts our senses, which lead to us to engage or detach from our surroundings. As an example, consider the car culture, and how industry marketing would have us focus on a vehicles sleek leather interior highlighting the bells and whistles that make driving “an experience”. In reality, most of us when stuck in traffic, have an overwhelming feeling of frustration, which often leads to road rage or contemplation of an early retirement. As a young child I can recall a conversation I had with my dad as we sitting in traffic on what was at the time, the longest strip mall development in the US.  As we were driving along this seven-lane roadway, I remember asking him, why things had to be so ugly!?! In contrast, when I walk through a park or historic neighborhood, I interact with my surroundings by sitting, playing, people watching, or meditating.  When done right, the collision of the natural and built environment can truly create memorable and dare I say spiritual experiences. I encourage us all to consider where we feel connected to our surroundings, and identify the characteristics or patterns that make this happen. When we feel connections, our souls are most likely ‘dancing in the world behind this-one’.

Duane Wakan is a new senior transportation planner with Nspiregreen LLC a community, multimodal, and environmental planning firm based in Washington, DC. He received his Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Utah. 



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