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Interior secretary declares ‘squaw’ derogatory, orders removal from federal land titles

A new task force and federal advisory committee will be working with tribal leaders to change the titles of federal lands with derogatory names, starting with a word that has been used as a slur for Indigenous women.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on Friday declared the term "squaw" to be offensive and established a new process to review and replace derogatory names of the nation’s federal lands.

"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 said. “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.”

According to a Board on Geographic Names database, there are currently 650 units of federal land that contain the term "squaw."

For Indigenous women like Haaland, the country's first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet, the term "squaw" is known as an offensive racial and sexist slur. Indigenous female scholar Audra Simpson explains in her book "As We Have Always Done" that these words are synonymous with “dirty, slut, criminals, lazy, promiscuous, prostitutes, easy, irresponsible" and more.

"It hits like a punch," said Kelsey Dayle John, a postdoctoral research associate and assistant professor in gender and women's studies and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. 

As an Indigenous woman herself, John said Haaland's decision is a statement about listening to Indigenous women whose voices have long been marginalized within history and political arenas.

She said these slurs and stereotypes fuel and justify violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women, who are murdered 10 times more often than all other ethnicities.

"I'm thinking of the Native mascots debate, and the tearing down of offensive statues. It's never just about the statue or the mascot, but about helping people to be critical about the cultural iconography that represents negative stereotypes about Indian people," John said in an interview.

Under the new order, the Board on Geographic Names will implement a special task force to remove derogatory terms and will include representatives from federal land management agencies, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion experts from the Interior Department. The order requires that the task force engage in tribal consultation and consider public feedback on proposed name changes.

A new Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names was also created to broadly solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal land unit names and will include representation from Indian tribes, tribal and native Hawaiian organizations, members of the public and civil rights, anthropology, and history experts.

"Such an important and courageous decision helps to restore dignity and respect to American Indians, and it provides an opportunity for the federal government to work with tribal communities to choose names that honor rather than disrespect native people," said Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, a professor and head of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona and a member of the Hopi Tribe.

"Finally, this land is and always will be Indian land, and any new name associated with a geographical place ought also to reflect this reality," he said.

The existing name-changing process works on a case-by-case basis, making it a lengthy process that often takes years before changes are approved. With hundreds of name changes currently pending before the board, these new procedures aim to more effectively and proactively review these proposals.

Several states have passed legislation prohibiting the use of the word “squaw” in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota. There is also legislation pending in both chambers of Congress to address derogatory names on geographic features on public land units.

Many businesses have also recently removed "squaw" from their titles, such as the Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort and the Hilton Phoenix Resort at the Peak, after the Board on Geographic Names renamed Arizona's Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak in 2008, honoring Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat and a member of the Hopi Tribe. 

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