Interior Secretary Haaland moves to rid U.S. of racially derogatory place names

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  • US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced that the federal agency would establish a process to review and replace racially abusive words used in place names.
  • Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, said a newly created federal advisory committee would review and recommend changes to derogatory geographic and federal land names.
  • He also declared the term “squaw” derogatory to Indigenous women and ordered the term to be removed from federal use.

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US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Friday that the federal agency would establish a process to review and replace racially derogatory words used in place names.

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Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, said a newly created federal advisory committee would review and recommend changes to the names of the offending federal lands, according to a US Interior Department press release.

The committee, through a new derogatory geographic names task force, will consult with the public and tribal representatives on possible place name changes.

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The press release said Haaland declared the word “squaw” to be derogatory to indigenous women. It ordered the Board of Geographic Names, the federal body tasked with naming geographic places, to develop procedures that would remove the term from federal usage.

According to Board Geographic Name data, “Squaw” currently appears in the names of over 650 federal land units.

“Racist words have no place in our local language or on our federal lands. Our country’s land and waters should be outside and a place to celebrate our shared cultural heritage – not to perpetuate a legacy of oppression,” says Haaland he said In press release.

“Today’s action will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names and mark an important step in honoring the ancestors who have managed our land since ancient times,” he said.

Holland notes that it usually takes years for the Board of Geographic Names to change place names because their review process is on a case-by-case basis. According to the press release, there are currently hundreds of name changes pending before the board.

The new federal advisory committee aims to make this process more efficient by facilitating the “active and systematic development and review” of name change proposals, the press release said.

Some advocates welcomed Haaland’s Friday’s announcement, saying the federal government’s move was long overdue.

“Names that still use derogatory terms are a shameful legacy of this country’s colonial and racist past,” said John Ickhock, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, in a statement. “It is time for us, as a nation, to move beyond these humiliating terms, and show Native people – and all people – equal respect.”

Eckhock continued, “We commend Secretary Haaland for taking action to make our federal government and public lands more inclusive and respectful of Indigenous peoples.”

Paul Spitler, senior legislative policy manager for the non-profit land conservation organization The Wilderness Society, also praised the announcement.

“The names of our mountains and rivers should honor and reflect the great diversity of our country, and advance the dignity of all people,” Spitler said in a statement Friday. “We support the Biden administration’s actions to eliminate thousands of racist and offensive place names on public lands and to work with diverse populations in local communities to create more equitable and inclusive outdoor spaces for all people.”

The Secretary of the Interior and the Board of Geographic Names have taken similar steps over the years to replace derogatory place names and terms.

In 1962, then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall directed the board to end the use of the N-word. And in 1974, the board identified a derogatory term for “Japanese” and ended its use as well.

board too Voted in 2008 to rename a mountain in Phoenix From “Squaw” Peak to Piesteva Peak, in honor of Army Spec. Lori Piesteva was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the US Army.

According to the press release, some states have also passed legislation to prohibit the use of the word “squaw” in place names, including Oregon, Maine, Montana and Minnesota.

Earlier this year, congressional Democrats also introduced legislation in July to change the names of more than 1,000 places in the US that contain offensive language and racist slurs, Business Insider reported.

There has also been a name change in the private sector. Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California, in September changed its name To Palisades Tahoe. The ski resort is in Olympic Valley, formerly known as “Squaw” Valley until it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.

On Friday, the Cleveland Indians, a Major League Baseball team, Cleveland officially became the Guardian.

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