Interior Dept. Takes Steps to Replace Derogatory Place Names, Starting with 'Squaw'

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Friday she was taking steps to remove derogatory terms such as "squaw" from place names around the country.

The first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, Haaland said a federal panel will be tasked with removing racist terms from geographic places' names and replacing them.

"Squaw" has been used as a slur for Indigenous women. According to an Associated Press report, a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names shows over 650 federal sites still contain the word in their names.

Haaland's task force will include representatives from federal land management agencies and experts with the Interior Department. Tribal and public feedback will also be part of the process.

The AP reported that the process for changing names of U.S. places can take years and there are currently hundreds of proposed name changes waiting for the panel.

The Native American Rights Fund applauded Haaland's move. John Echohawk, the group's executive director, told the AP that action from the federal government on this was long overdue.

"Names that still use derogatory terms are an embarrassing legacy of this country's colonialist and racist past," Echohawk said. "It is well past time for us, as a nation, to move forward, beyond these derogatory terms, and show Native people—and all people—equal respect."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Deb Haaland, Department of the Interior
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on November 19 declared "squaw" to be a derogatory term and said she is taking steps to remove the term from federal government use and to replace other derogatory place names. Above, Haaland speaks during a Tribal Nations Summit during Native American Heritage Month in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on November 15 in Washington. Evan Vucci, File/AP Photo

The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Oregon resident and tribal citizen Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III as head of the National Park Service, making him the first Native American to hold the position.

Haaland said previously that Sams, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, would be an asset as the administration works to make national parks more accessible to everyone.

Haaland also called for the creation of an advisory committee to solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal place names. That panel will be made up of tribal representatives and civil rights, anthropology and history experts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Board on Geographic Names took action to eliminate the use of derogatory terms for Black and Japanese people.

The board also voted in 2008 to change the name of a prominent Phoenix mountain from Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak to honor Army Specialist Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.

In 2020, the Phoenix City Council voted unanimously to rename Squaw Peak Drive to Piestewa Peak Drive after it was decried as a demeaning and degrading word.

In California, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe earlier this year. The resort is in Olympic Valley was known as Squaw Valley until it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Tribes in the region had been asking the resort for a name change for decades.

There is also legislation pending in Congress to address derogatory names on geographic features on public lands. States from Oregon to Maine have passed laws prohibiting the use of the word "squaw" in place names.

California, Squaw Valley Ski Resort
The Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California changed its name to Palisades Tahoe earlier this year following tribal criticism. Above, the Olympic rings stand atop a sign at the entrance to the resort in Olympic Valley, California, on July 8, 2020. Haven Daley, File/AP Photo