Matthew Brown, Deseret News, December 1, 2021
The Department of the Interior recently ordered that the derogatory term “squaw” be removed from lakes, mountains, trails and other features on federal land — and the largest share of the cleanup will be taking place in the West.
In California, the sexual slur for Native American women appears on 87 places, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has a search tool to look up place names in every state. Idaho is a distant second with 69 places identified by the now-banned term followed by Arizona with 68 places.
When variants of the name are included in a search (such as historical or local references that are not formally recognized) the frequency of the term squaw as a place name can almost triple in some states.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American from New Mexico, issued the order on Nov. 19, along with another directive establishing a process to review and replace other offensive names identifying the nation’s geographic features.
The orders, which continue an ongoing movement that goes back decades of eliminating derogatory names from landmarks, is expected to streamline and speed up what has usually been a lengthy, painstaking process to change the offensive name of a geographic site.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. 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, the first Indigenous woman to head the department, said in a press release. “Today’s actions will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names and mark a significant step in honoring the ancestors who have stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”
Many landmarks are named after historical events in a location, early settlers of an area or can reflect the whims of land surveyors who created early maps of the American frontier, researchers and historians said.
The movement to remove the term squaw from geographical places in the country goes back nearly 30 years, when Minnesota became the first state to require counties to rename 19 lakes, streams and points that have the word squaw in them.
An Associated Press story at the time reported that opponents of the new law facetiously complied. In Minnesota’s Lake County, near the Canadian border, they tried to change the names of Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay to “Politically Correct Creek” and “Politically Correct Bay.”
Despite the law, a lake and a town both still carry the name Squaw Lake in Minnesota, according the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ database.
While painstaking, changing the name of a geographical feature in Utah has succeeded in the past.
In 2006, a proposal to change “Chinamans Arch” to “Chinese Arch” near Brigham City sailed through the process without opposition. But a 2017, the renaming of Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon in Grand County ran up against some unexpected opposition.
The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission and the NAACP Tri-State Conference opposed the name change to preserve the history of racial attitudes of the past and noted the word “Negro” is still used in official group names — such as the National Council of Negro Women. The Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission believed removing the offensive term would give the misperception Utah has “progressed to a place where such flagrant insensitivity is no longer tolerated or acceptable in our community,” according to the Moab Times.
The state Committee on Geographic Names recommended Negro Bill Canyon not be changed, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names disagreed and four years ago this month ordered it be changed, acknowledging local sentiment in Moab.
“People don’t realize the anger it created. I was treated horribly and to me that shows the name symbolized more than just a name — that there was some racism behind it,” Mary McGann, a Grand County Council member who fought for the change, told the Deseret News at the time. “We change the name of things all the time, but this created some vile reaction. In many ways, it made me think it was more important than not to change it.”
While the U.S. Board on Geographic Names gave a nod to local sentiment in 2017, the orders issued last month are clearly top-down directives to scrub offensive terms from the nation’s geographical features and give priority to local requests to eliminate the term squaw.