Nearly 650 waterways, mountains, and other geographical features recently received new names as part of a U.S. government effort to remove a racist and misogynistic slur for an Indigenous woman.
The project to remove the word “squaw”—a term that many Native Americans find derogatory—from sites on federal land was brought forth by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead a cabinet agency, in November 2021 and recently wrapped up at the beginning of September 2022.
“I feel a deep obligation to use my platform to ensure that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming,” said Interior Secretary Haaland in a press release. “That starts with removing racist and derogatory names that have graced federal locations for far too long.”
The list of new names (and an interactive map) has since been published on the Interior Department website and reflects a months-long effort by the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force (which included 13 representatives from the various government offices ranging from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs). During that time, the Task Force fielded thousands of recommendations from local communities and nearly 70 tribal governments before eventually voting on the replacement names.
The majority of the newly named sites are concentrated in the western United States (66 are in Arizona alone, and another 70 are in California). Some new names are relatively nondescript, like a new East Lake in Wisconsin and a Sheep Meadow in Idaho. Others are named after something that happened there, like the newly named Olympic Valley in California (referring to the site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games). And more still have been rechristened to incorporate names from local tribal languages or to recognize an important Indigenous person (like Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain in Colorado, which honors Owl Woman of the Cheyenne).
Typically, the renaming of sites on federal land is done on a case-by-case basis. However, this isn’t the first time there’s been an overhaul—the Interior Department also altered various place names in 1962 to remove derogatory terms for Black people and again in 1974 to expunge insulting labels for Japanese people.
Going forward, the department will work with the newly formed Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names to identify any other natural features with offensive names (or are named for persons with troubling histories, like Mount Evans, named for former Territorial Governor of Colorado John Evans, who was responsible for the murder of Indigenous people) and solicit replacement names.
“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,” Secretary Haaland said.