A racist and misogynist slur used to refer to Native American women will be removed from the names of hundreds of islands, lakes, rivers, mountains, and other geographic features throughout the United States.
After a ten-month-long process, the United States Department of Interior finally got rid of the word “squaw” from federal use last month. The Federal Board on Geographic Names approved the final replacement names for 643 sites that included the slur. According to a department statement, the decision went into effect immediately.
The new names apply to public lands across the country, from Arizona’s Beacon Peak to Pennsylvania’s Lowrey Run Valley.
“Yes, this is just one word,” writes Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior Department, in a Washington Post opinion piece; “But words matter.”
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of the Laguna and a 35th-generation New Mexican, is the first Native American cabinet secretary. She claims that the derogatory term is “not a casual insult” and that the harm done by it “cannot be overstated.”
Where did the term come from?
The term is most likely derived from an innocuous word for “woman” in the Algonquian language. However, as white settlers adopted the term and began using it for their own purposes, it took on new, derogatory connotations. It has remained a slur throughout the rest of American history.
“From the outset, Europeans who set the first foot on this continent sought to take over the land, to colonize it, and to remove the Native Americans they viewed as a hindrance to amassing land and power,” Haaland writes. “In pursuit of this mission, the rape and sexual assault of Indigenous women were as weapons. And instead of calling them women, the men would use that word.”
She adds that for the men who said it, the word helped them justify their actions, “as if using cheap slang would make the victims somehow deserving of assault—even to this day.”
The renaming process
Federal officials worked with nearly 70 tribal governments and considered over 1,000 public suggestions to determine replacement names for the sites. Last November, Haaland issued a secretary’s order declaring the term derogatory and establishing a task force to review federal site names.
Other efforts have made progress in eradicating the slur at the state level. Maine, Oregon, Minnesota, and Montana have all passed legislation to have the word removed from place names. California’s governor signed legislation earlier this month to remove the derogatory term from the names of nearly 100 geographical sites throughout the state. A group of elementary school students in Alaska is campaigning to rename a creek and a road in their community that contains the word.
Similar steps are being taken by private entities. In September 2021, a historic ski resort in California changed its name to Palisades Tahoe.
Last year, the ski resort’s president, Dee Byrne, told the New York Times‘ Vimal Patel that the word “is a hurtful term, and we’re not hurtful people.”