Hidden deep within the Venezuelan jungle stands the tallest waterfall in the world. It's so tall, rising to a height of 3,212 ft, that the roaring torrent of falling water is reduced to a mere mist before meeting the rocks below. Due to its remote location, the magnificent cascade wasn't known to the outside world until 16 November, 1933, when American aviator Jimmie Angel chanced a glimpse of it from the cockpit of his monoplane. Four years later, Angel, with his wife and three companions ventured back to the falls, hiking eleven days through the jungle. When they returned, word spread quickly of his discovery--named Angel Falls in his honor.
So it remained, named after that lucky American aviator who first laid eyes on the falls--that is until December 20, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez declared: "No one should refer to Angel Falls anymore."Chávez, flanked by images of the iconic falls, announced the renaming on his weekly television program. The socialist leader presented then the waterfall's new name, Kerepakupai-Merú, taken from the indigenous Pemon Language--meaning "waterfall of the deepest place." The stories of Angel's adventure and supposed discovery of the natural wonder apparently impressed the president little.
This is ours, long before Angel arrived there. This is indigenous property, ours, aborigine. One could say he was the first one to see it from a plane. But how many millions of indigenous eyes saw it, and prayed to it?
This is not the first time the Venezuelan president has stirred controversy for shunning names of places and institutions that honor Western figure--a process referred to as a "21st century socialist revolution." Recently the nation's holiday for Christopher Columbus had been changed to honor indigenous resistance instead, according to a report from The Guardian.
The renaming of important natural wonders, however, is not limited to the more radical statesmen. One of Australia's most recognizable landmarks, long known as Ayers Rock after European explorer Sir Henry Ayers, returned to being called its Aboriginal name, Uluru. The Indian cities of Madras and Bombay, as they were dubbed by the colonizing English, both eventually reverted back to their original names, Chennai and Mumbai, as well.
To some, the renaming of Angel Falls may seem a bit trite, unnecessary or politically motivated--but ultimately, the significance of any name given to a natural fixture is equally officious. Angel Falls, or Kerepakupai-Merú, or whatever it's called, existed for an untold period of time without a name--and its cascade will likely continue to shower the jungle below for millennia to come, regardless of whether there's anyone around to call it any name at all.