Home Secretary seeks to rid US of derogatory place names

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FILE – Home Secretary Deb Haaland speaks at a summit of tribal nations during Native American Heritage Month in the South Court auditorium on the White House campus on November 15, 2021, in Washington. On Friday, November 19, 2021, Secretary Haaland said “squaw” was a derogatory term and said she was taking action to remove the term from federal government use and to replace other derogatory place names. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci, file)

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US Home Secretary Deb Haaland officially declared a derogatory term “squaw” on Friday and said she was taking action to remove it from federal use and to replace other place names pejorative.

Haaland is ordering a federal panel tasked with naming geographic locations to implement procedures to remove what she called racist terms from federal use. The decision gives momentum to a movement that has included the dismantling of other historic markers and monuments deemed offensive across the country.

“The lands and waters of our nation should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our common cultural heritage – not to carry on the legacy of oppression,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s actions will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names and mark a milestone in honoring the ancestors who have ruled our lands from time immemorial.

The first Native American to head a Cabinet agency, Haaland is from Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico.

The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III as head of the National Park Service, making him the first Native American to hold the post. Haaland has previously said Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla, from Confederate tribes on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, would be an asset as the administration strives to make national parks more accessible to everyone.

The Native American Rights Fund applauded Haaland’s decision to tackle derogatory place names, saying the federal government’s action was long overdue.

“The names that still use derogatory terms are an embarrassing legacy of this country’s colonialist and racist past,” said John Echohawk, executive director of the group. “It is high time for us, as a nation, to move forward, beyond these derogatory terms, and show aboriginal people – and all – the same respect.”

Environmentalists also hailed the action, saying it marked a step towards reconciliation.

Under Haaland’s order, a federal task force will come up with alternate names for geographic features on federal lands bearing the term “squaw,” which has been used as an insult, particularly to Indigenous women. A database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names shows that there are more than 650 federal sites whose names contain the term.

The working group will be composed of representatives of federal land management agencies and experts from the Ministry of the Interior. Tribal consultation and public feedback will be part of the process.

The process of changing place names in the United States can take years, and federal officials have said there are currently hundreds of proposed name changes pending before the board.

Haaland also called for the creation of an advisory committee to solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal place names. This panel will be composed of tribal representatives and experts in civil rights, anthropology and history.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Board on Geographic Names took steps to eliminate the use of derogatory terms for blacks and Japanese.

The board of directors also voted in 2008 to change the name of a major Phoenix mountain from Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak to honor Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the United States Army.

In California, the Squaw Valley ski resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe earlier this year. The resort sits in the Olympic Valley, known as Squaw Valley until it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Tribes in the area had been asking the resort to change its name for decades.

The Colorado Naming Advisory Board also recommended renaming Squaw Mountain near Denver in honor of a Native American woman who served as a translator for white tribes and settlers in the 19th century. Members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe also applied to the Federal Naming Council in October to change the name of the mountain.

There is also legislation pending in Congress to deal with derogatory names on geographic features on public lands. The states from Oregon to Maine have passed laws prohibiting the use of the word “squaw” in place names.

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