Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Takes Action to Rename Places That Use Offensive Terms Like 'Squaw'

"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," she says

Deb Haaland

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wants to remove and replace the names of sites on federal lands that she says have historically been derogatory.

"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 Native American to hold a Cabinet-level position in any administration, said last week in announcing various actions her department is taking, including the removal of the term "squaw" from more than 650 sites.

On Friday, Haaland ordered the creation of a federal task force to rename places that use the term, which has "historically been used as an offensive ethnic, racial, and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women," according to the announcement. (As the Associated Press reported last year, "The word 'squaw,' derived from the Algonquin language, may have once simply meant 'woman.' But over generations, the word morphed.")

The secretary, 60, has also established an advisory committee to consider changing the names of other places that use terms considered offensive and anachronistic.

The committee will include members that represent the leadership of Indian tribes, tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations as well as experts on civil rights, anthropology and history.

"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," Haaland said.

The announcement also points to precedents for eliminating the use of derogatory terms in the names of places on federal lands.

In 1962, then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall declared the N-word derogatory and directed the Board on Geographic Names, which dates back to 1890, to stop using it.

Deb Haaland
Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty

In addition, Haaland's announcement points out, states like Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota have already passed laws to prohibit the use of the word "squaw" in names of naturally or historically meaningful places.

Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, praised Haaland's "timely and welcome" actions as crucial first steps in getting rid of "racist and hate-filled" names.

"There is no place for such insulting language in our society or on our public lands," Grijalva said. "Phrases like 'squaw' were used to attack the dignity of Indigenous peoples in this country and have no place in modern conversation."

The Native American Rights Fund agreed. "Names that still use derogatory terms are an embarrassing legacy of this country's colonialist and racist past," the group — which provides legal assistance to Native Americans, tribes and organizations — said of Haaland's announcement. "It is well-past time for us, as a nation, to move forward, beyond these derogatory terms, and show Native people — and all people — equal respect."

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