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Various sites are changing their names after Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland issued an order last month that established a process to review and replace derogatory names of the nation’s geographic features that use the word “squaw.”  

Secretarial Order 3404 also formed the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, which includes representatives from federal land management agencies, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion experts from the Department. The Order requires that the task force engage in Tribal consultation and consider public feedback on proposed name changes.

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"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,” said Secretary Haaland in a statement on November 19. 

Secretary Haaland’s order affects more than 660 federal land sites nationwide that contain the term, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. 

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Last week, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names unanimously approved renaming Squaw Mountain in Colorado to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain. Pronounced “mess-taw-hay,” the mountain honors a Cheyenne woman who translated interactions between European settlers and Tribes in the early 19th century. The mountain is 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of Denver. Northern Cheyenne tribal members filed an application with the agency in October to change the name. 

The U.S. Forest Service tweeted on December 9: “We are pleased to see the name change to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain, honoring an influential Indigenous woman who played an important role in Colorado history. The Forest will start the process of renaming our sites to honor her accordingly & will update signage as quickly as possible.”

Over the weekend, the Grand Forks Herald reported that six sites in North Dakota using the term “squaw” will be renamed. The six sites are in the western part of the state and include Squaw Gap in McKenzie County near the North Dakota-Montana border, Squaw Creek Bay in Dunn County and several streams named Squaw Creek in Hettinger, McKenzie and Dunn County. The names of the locations haven’t been released yet, but the dropping of the derogatory slur is welcomed by many, including North Dakota Representative Ruth Buffalo, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara). 

“It’s a new day. This is exciting. One more step towards healing for many,” said North Dakota Representative Ruth Buffalo to Native News Online. 

The Secretarial Order formally identifies the term “squaw” as derogatory. According to the Order, the term has historically been used as an offensive ethnic, racial, and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women. The Department of the Interior order only applies to federal sites using the term, and does not affect geographic sites under state or local jurisdiction.

Some states have previously passed legislation declaring that the word “squaw” is derogatory, including Minnesota. Minnesota passed legislation in 1995, stating that “the commissioner of natural resources shall change each name of a geographic feature in the state that contains the word ‘squaw’ to another name that does not contain this word.”

Previously in 2008, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted to change the name of Squaw Peak in the Phoenix area to Piestewa Peak, after Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.