The Department of the Interior recently ordered that the derogatory term “squaw” be removed from lakes, mountains, trails and other features on federal land — and the largest share of the cleanup will be taking place in the West.
In California, the sexual slur for Native American women appears on 87 places, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has a search tool to look up place names in every state. Idaho is a distant second with 69 places identified by the now-banned term followed by Arizona with 68 places.
When variants of the name are included in a search (such as historical or local references that are not formally recognized) the frequency of the term squaw as a place name can almost triple in some states.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American from New Mexico, issued the order on Nov. 19, along with another directive establishing a process to review and replace other offensive names identifying the nation’s geographic features.
The orders, which continue an ongoing movement that goes back decades of eliminating derogatory names from landmarks, is expected to streamline and speed up what has usually been a lengthy, painstaking process to change the offensive name of a geographic site.
“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, the first Indigenous woman to head the department, said in a press release. “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.”
Here’s why the term squaw became a lightning rod for removing offensive names from places and how past efforts to clean up the language of landmarks have fared.
History of a word
Many landmarks are named after historical events in a location, early settlers of an area or can reflect the whims of land surveyors who created early maps of the American frontier, researchers and historians said.
The movement to remove the term squaw from geographical places in the country goes back nearly 30 years, when Minnesota became the first state to require counties to rename 19 lakes, streams and points that have the word squaw in them.
An Associated Press story at the time reported that opponents of the new law facetiously complied. In Minnesota’s Lake County, near the Canadian border, they tried to change the names of Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay to “Politically Correct Creek” and “Politically Correct Bay.”
Despite the law, a lake and a town both still carry the name Squaw Lake in Minnesota, according the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ database.
While there is some debate over when the term squaw evolved from an Algonquian word for female to a sexual slur used by European fur traders and white settlers, Native Americans generally associate the word with today’s derogatory definition and have led efforts over the years to eliminate it from place names around the country.
Following in the footsteps of Minnesota, Maine, Montana and Oregon, Utah passed a law earlier this year that sets up the state’s own process to remove offensive place names. The bill singled out the term squaw.
“It was used to describe women who were offered as prostitutes during mountain man rendezvous and later just to describe women who worked in prostitution outside of military forts,” Shaina Snyder, a Diné Navajo and Southern Ute told the Deseret News. The word, she said, has no relation to the languages, cultures or dialects of Utah tribes but came with westward expansion.
And the word is associated with 53 places in the Beehive State, most notably a jagged peak overlooking Provo and the BYU campus.
The state solution
Researchers at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names said Utah County’s Squaw Peak is first identified on United States Geological Survey maps of the area in 1948, but may have been used locally for years before.
The most common story about its origins is that it was named for the spot where a Timpanogos Ute tribe member fell to her death while being pursued by white settlers, BYU history professor Jay Buckley told The Associated Press, noting the tale may be more anecdotal than fact.
Efforts to rename the prominent landmark have ebbed and flowed over the past two decades.
And navigating a time-consuming, confusing government process to petition for the change has proven as much an obstacle as public opposition.
In Utah County, the opposition appears to be mostly motivated by nostalgia, although Dustin Jansen, now-director of the Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs, recalls opinions got so mean-spirited that a local news website stopped posting comments on a news story about efforts to change the peak’s name.
He added that the campaign for change would also get conflated with eliminating Native American-related school mascots, which it is not. Jansen and others said tribal leaders are not in agreement on school mascots, but they are unanimous in eliminating the term squaw from local landmarks.
The latest sustained campaign for a name change was around 2017, when then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, now a congressman, heard feedback that the term perpetuated and mocked domestic violence against Native American women and encouraged those seeking the change to gauge if there’s public support to warrant pursuing a formal request.
But the effort stalled when city officials and supporters learned the peak is on federal land. And when proponents began researching the federal name-changing process they called Jansen’s office for help.
“We had community members contacting us, saying, ‘This is really confusing,’” Jansen said. Instead of a form or application to fill out, the government asks for vague paperwork explaining why the name should be changed.
That started a yearslong search for a solution that resulted in a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay. Signed into law earlier this year, the legislation enlists the Utah Division of Indian Affairs to help groups submit a name change request for geographic areas that use American Indian-related terms.
The new law, which singles out places that use the word squaw, can apply to other offensive terms. But most importantly, Iwamoto and Jansen said, it provides a clear process that encourages community input to petitioning government for a name change.
Iwamoto said former GOP Congressman Rob Bishop testified in favor of her bill, stressing that establishing a public process that supports a change would compel federal authorities to honor the request.
The federal solution
While painstaking, changing the name of a geographical feature in Utah has succeeded in the past.
In 2006, a proposal to change “Chinamans Arch” to “Chinese Arch” near Brigham City sailed through the process without opposition. But a 2017, the renaming of Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon in Grand County ran up against some unexpected opposition.
The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission and the NAACP Tri-State Conference opposed the name change to preserve the history of racial attitudes of the past and noted the word “Negro” is still used in official group names — such as the National Council of Negro Women. The Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission believed removing the offensive term would give the misperception Utah has “progressed to a place where such flagrant insensitivity is no longer tolerated or acceptable in our community,” according to the Moab Times.
The state Committee on Geographic Names recommended Negro Bill Canyon not be changed, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names disagreed and four years ago this month ordered it be changed, acknowledging local sentiment in Moab.
“People don’t realize the anger it created. I was treated horribly and to me that shows the name symbolized more than just a name — that there was some racism behind it,” Mary McGann, a Grand County Council member who fought for the change, told the Deseret News at the time. “We change the name of things all the time, but this created some vile reaction. In many ways, it made me think it was more important than not to change it.”
While the U.S. Board on Geographic Names gave a nod to local sentiment in 2017, the orders issued last month are clearly top-down directives to scrub offensive terms from the nation’s geographical features and give priority to local requests to eliminate the term squaw.
But the department’s announcement noted such a move has precedent. It cited former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, of Arizona, identified the N-word as derogatory, and directed in 1962 that the (Board on Geographic Names) develop a policy to eliminate its use. In 1974, the board declared a pejorative term for Japanese as derogatory and eliminated its use.
Arie Leeflang, secretary of the Utah Committee on Geographic Names, said in an email that the panel is awaiting any guidance on if the Interior Department directives change its process.
He described the state committee’s role in name changes as “passive.”
“We do not proactively seek to change geographic names and are only involved when an official geographic name proposal is received by the (U.S. Board on Geographic Names) and the BGN asks for our review.”
Jansen said supporters of renaming Squaw Peak in Utah County are still gathering information, including input from the Ute Indian Tribe for alternative names, to submit for a name change request.
“I was contacted by someone (after the Interior Department order was announced) who asked, ‘Are the feds going to do it now? What say does the local community have in what the name should be?’” Jansen said. “That’s a question we are going to have to find out.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that then-Provo Mayor John Curtis endorsed changing the name of Squaw Peak. Curtis encouraged those seeking the change to gauge if there was enough public support to warrant pursuing a formal request.