A racist and misogynist slur referring to Native American women will no longer be included in the names of hundreds of islands, lakes, rivers, mountains and other geographic sites around the United States.
Last month, the United States Department of the Interior completed its ten-month-long process of removing the word “squaw” from federal use, and the federal Board on Geographic Names approved the final replacement names for 643 sites that included the slur. The decision took effect immediately, per a statement from the department.
The new names apply to public lands located all over the country, from Beacon Peak in Arizona to Lowrey Run Valley in Pennsylvania.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of the Laguna and a 35th-generation New Mexican, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She argues that the derogatory term is “not a casual insult” and that the damage it has caused “cannot be overstated.”
The term likely originated as an inoffensive word for “woman” in the Algonquian language. But as white settlers latched onto the term and began employing it for their own purposes, it took on new, pejorative meanings. Throughout the rest of American history, it has endured as a slur.
“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,” writes Haaland. “In pursuit of this mission, the rape and sexual assault of Indigenous women were used as weapons. And instead of calling them women, the men would use that word.”
For the men who uttered it, she adds, the word helped them justify their acts, “as if using cheap slang would make the victims somehow deserving of assault—even to this day.”
To determine replacement names for the sites, federal officials collaborated with nearly 70 tribal governments and considered more than 1,000 recommendations from members of the public. The process began last November, when Haaland issued a secretary’s order that declared the term derogatory and established a task force to review the names of federal sites.
Elsewhere, other efforts have made headway in banishing the slur at the state level. Maine, Oregon, Minnesota and Montana have passed laws to remove the word from place names. Earlier this month, California’s governor signed a bill to remove the derogatory term from the names of nearly 100 geographic sites across the state. In Alaska, a group of elementary school students is pushing to rename a creek and a road in their community that contain the word.
Private entities are also taking similar steps. A historic ski resort in California changed its name to Palisades Tahoe in September 2021.
The word “‘is a hurtful term, and we’re not hurtful people,” Dee Byrne, the ski resort’s president, told the New York Times’ Vimal Patel last year.