People will see a change in the colloquial name of a river, peak, valley or other natural feature if it contains “squaw”, a word that Native women have long considered demeaning, but which was accepted in mainstream white culture until recently.
At the request of US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the geographic names agency’s board of directors spent months combing through suggested replacement names and last week approved those to be used.
In New Mexico, examples of renaming include Squaw Creek in Grant County to Mason Creek; Squaw Tit in Sierra County at Grandview Peak; and Squaw Peak in Sandoval County in Tamayameh Kah Sta Mah.
Haaland, the first Native woman to lead the agency, called the change time-to-time and said it would help make public lands, which belong to all Americans, more inviting for everyone, regardless of heritage. .
Tribal and racial justice advocates have called the name change an important symbolic shift that signals cultural and political change.
“I think it’s a powerful statement,” said Corrine Sanchez, executive director of Tewa Women United. “We know there is power in the denomination. It’s powerful for our young people to witness this – it’s transformative.”
Sanchez said she encourages that uplifting change that happens when racial division increases and some leaders want to clean up the way Indigenous peoples have been oppressed in the past.
“Other people continue to make decisions that dehumanize and minimize and erase our experiences,” Sanchez said. “So it’s a small step but a big step.”
The agency is purging “squaw” of all federal use in response to Haaland declaring the word pejorative last year. References to the word will be “sq___” in official documents and communications.
The US Geological Survey has identified the term in the names of natural features on public and private lands in approximately three dozen states and mapped places to rename.
Name changes will be limited to federal maps and databases, meaning landowners — whether private, state, or local — can keep their signs and maps with the derogatory term, though the hope is that ‘They will follow the federal government’s lead,’ USGS spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz wrote in an email.
She noted that the USGS location is influential with apps like Google Maps.
The name change does not apply to cultural or man-made features such as roads, malls, churches, schools, airports and resorts, with very few exceptions, wrote Interior Ministry spokesman Giovanni Rocco in an email.
Landowners, state and local leaders, and citizens must decide whether to rename these structures and, if so, what the new names should be.
Yet the purge of ‘squaws’ from natural features is tied to the broader effort by states and communities across the country to remove objectionable names and monuments from public spaces, a move hailed by ethnic groups who say it attacks a layer of systemic racism.
An expert, who studies the relationship between people and places, said this change in policy was made with remarkable speed and determination compared to what often happens with efforts to replace derogatory names in public sites.
“A lot of these proposals and a lot of these name change requests — they’re running out,” said Derek Alderman, professor of cultural geography at the University of Tennessee. “In many cases, we don’t see substantial change because many leaders are waiting for the problem to go away.”
Haaland, a former congressman from New Mexico, ordered that committee to review a broader range of names that disparage race, gender identity and religion.
For example, one site in New Mexico has “redman” in the name, and another has “Chinaman”.
The federal panel will create a plan to solicit name changes suggested by tribes and other minority communities as well as government officials and the general public.
Alderman said it was essential to tackle derisive place names, and not just because they offend a particular group of people. These names provide a window into our society, he said.
“These names are some of the ways we learn about history,” Alderman said. “These are ways of learning that matter, historically and socially.” Who is valued and who is not.
Sanchez said it’s no coincidence that the term “squaw” — which many people have long complained of as demeaning — is finally being dropped under an Indigenous woman, reflecting a shift in power dynamics.
“Representation is important,” she said.
In Santa Fe, city officials have set up a commission to study controversial landmarks as well as streets, parks and other places with objectionable names.
The effort focuses primarily on historical figures such as Juan de Oñate, Kit Carson, and Diego de Vargas, whom some see as pioneers and others as conquerors who used brutal tactics against indigenous peoples.
The commission recently compiled a 138-page report with general recommendations for how the city should work with the public to decide what to do about controversial landmarks.
This effort was more like Alderman portrayed moving too slowly with too little clear direction for many people’s liking.
The report suggests the city is working to correct the “tricultural myth” of Indigenous, Hispanic, and white peoples living in harmony for much of New Mexico’s history, while their current conflict over monuments shows that this it’s not the case.
Fatima van Hattum, co-coordinator for NMWomen.org., said the state’s multicultural complexity is why dialogue is needed when renaming schools, streets, parks and other common spaces.
In those cases, van Hattum said, “you can’t just change the name. It doesn’t necessarily cure a community. [unless] there’s a conversation around that.”
But sometimes it’s necessary for a head of government like Haaland to make a top-down decision to get rid of a derogatory name, she said, noting that in other parts of the country it’s been done with Confederate generals and slave owners.
Like Sanchez, she thinks removing the word “squaw” from the names of natural features was a big step, but only a step.
“When someone is called something, racism has paved the way for violence,” van Hattum said, citing a book she read on raciolinguistics. “When you talk about the importance of language, the symbolism…reflects a material reality.”
The places have retained some derogatory words to reinforce the colonialism that has taken hold, so changing the name changes the power dynamic, van Hattum said, but added that the progress cannot stop there.
She and Sanchez, who serve on Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Racial Justice Advisory Council, said they recommended researching state and local sites that have objectionable names and working to change them. But they received no response from the authorities.
Both agree that the current name change must be accompanied by policy changes to ameliorate historic tribal inequalities.
Sanchez said anyone who cares should stay alert because the next interior secretary may undo this and other changes Haaland has made.
“It’s a win. It’s huge, but it’s also fragile,” Sanchez said.