Haaland strikes slur for Indigenous women from federal lands

By Jennifer Yachnin | 11/19/2021 01:40 PM EST

Mountain soon to become Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain

Colorado officials, including Gov. Jared Polis, have approved renaming Squaw Mountain in Idaho Springs to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain after a Cheyenne woman who facilitated relations between white settlers and Native American tribes in the early 19th century. Hyoung Chang/Denver Post/AP Photo

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took steps today to speed the erasure of offensive monikers from public lands — including a blanket order that will eliminate an offensive term for Native American women from more than 650 federal sites.

Haaland, the first Native American to helm Interior, issued a pair of secretarial orders aimed at streamlining the process for amending place names, including the creation of a federal advisory committee to review and recommend changes.

"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 said in a statement.


Under Secretarial Order 3404, Haaland today declared "squaw" a derogatory term — noting its use as an "offensive ethnic, racial and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women" — and directed the creation of a 13-member Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force to identify and recommend new names for sites that include the term.

Haaland’s order highlights previous actions to strike offensive terms from federal sites, including then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall’s decision in 1963 to remove a racist slur referring to Black people, resulting in the word "Negro" appearing in many place names instead. That replacement, now also offensive, is being replaced in many places (Greenwire, June 17, 2020).

"When referring to the pejorative term for ‘African-Americans’, Secretary Udall commented ‘[w]hatever the overtones of the word were in the past, unquestionably a great many people now consider it derogatory or worse,’" Haaland’s order states. "The time has come to recognize that the term ‘squaw’ is no less derogatory than others which have been identified and should also be erased from the National landscape and forever replaced."

The order likewise notes a 1974 decision from the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) — the federal body that reviews and votes on name changes — to substitute "Japanese" for sites that included a shortened version of the word often used as an insult (Greenwire, Sept. 22).

Haaland’s order starts a 300-day clock — including time for public comment and tribal consultation — for the naming board to issue a determination on those changes.

Under Secretarial Order 3405, Haaland also aims to more broadly review derogatory geographic names.

That order directs the National Park Service to create a "Federal Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names" tasked with setting up a process to more quickly replace offensive names on federal lands.

"By design, the BGN relies on individuals and community representatives to provide name-replacement proposals. The Federal Advisory Committee established pursuant to this Order will help facilitate development and review of these proposals," the order states.

The 17-member committee will include at least four citizens of Native American tribes; one member of a tribal organization; one member of a Native Hawaiian organization; four individuals with backgrounds in civil rights or race relations; four people with expertise in anthropology, cultural studies, geography or history; and three people who will "represent the general public."