ALBUQUERQUE, NM – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on Friday formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term and said it is taking steps to remove it from federal government use and replace other derogatory place names.
Haaland is commissioning a federal panel tasked with naming geographic locations to implement procedures to remove what she called racist terms from federal use. The decision gives impetus to a movement that has included the dismantling of other signs and historical monuments considered offensive across the country.
“Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage, not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s actions will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names and mark a significant step in honor of the ancestors who have guarded our lands since time immemorial.”
Haaland, the first Native American to run a cabinet agency, is from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.
The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Oregon resident and tribal citizen Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III as head of the National Park Service, making him the first Native American to hold office.
Haaland said earlier that Sams, a citizen of the Confederate tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reserve, would be an asset as the administration works to make national parks more accessible to everyone.
The Native American Rights Fund applauded Haaland’s decision to address derogatory site names, saying the federal government’s action had to be done for a long time.
“Names that still use derogatory terms are a shameful legacy of this country’s colonialist and racist past,” said John Echohawk, the group’s executive director. “The time has come for us, as a nation, to move forward, beyond these derogatory terms, and show the natives, and all people, the same respect.”
Environmentalists also praised the action, saying it was a step towards reconciliation.
Under Haaland’s command, a federal task force will find replacement names for geographic features on federal lands with the term “squaw,” which has been used as an insult, especially for Indigenous women. A database maintained by the Geographic Names Board shows that there are more than 650 federal sites with names containing the term.
The working group will consist of representatives of federal land management agencies and experts from the Department of the Interior. Tribal consultation and public feedback will be part of the process.
The process to change U.S. place names can take years, and federal officials said there are currently hundreds of name change proposals pending before the board.
Haaland also called for the creation of an advisory committee to request, review, and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal toponyms. This tribunal will be composed of tribal representatives and experts in civil rights, anthropology and history.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Geographic Names Board took steps to eliminate the use of derogatory terms for blacks and Japanese.
The board also voted in 2008 to change the name of a prominent 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 U.S. Army.
In California, the Squaw Valley ski resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe earlier this year. The resort is located in Olympic Valley, which was known as Squaw Valley until it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Tribes in the region have been asking the resort for a name change for decades.
The Colorado nomenclature advisory panel has also recommended renaming Squaw Mountain near Denver in honor of a Native American woman who acted as a translator for white tribes and settlers in the 19th century. Members of the North Cheyenne tribe also filed a petition with the federal nomenclature board in October to change the name of the mountain.
There is also pending legislation in Congress to address derogatory names in geographic features on public lands. Oregon states in Maine have passed laws banning the use of the word “squaw” in place names.