The opening paragraphs of Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s recent piece in Sierra Magazine “What’s in a Name? What It Means to Decolonize a Natural Feature.”
There are hundreds upon hundreds of them—by one count, more than 800. They are mountains, valleys, creeks, lakes, and other physical landmarks with one thing in common: They all have the word squaw in their name.
The exact derivation of squaw is unclear. Some etymologists say that it’s an Algonquin word for “woman”; others say that it’s a mistranslation of the Mohawk term for “vagina.” In any case, it’s inarguable that over the centuries the word became a misogynistic and racist slur directed at Indigenous women—a means of using language to demean. Yet the word is etched across the American landscape. There are at least 1,400 places across the United States whose official names contain a racial slur of some sort. By far the most common epithet is squaw (hereafter, I will use sq***).
Last November, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, vowed to change that. Secretary Haaland announced the creation of a formal process to review and replace derogatory place-names. She also officially classified the term sq*** as offensive and created a federal task force to find replacement names. “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said. “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’s initiative is just one part—though the most prominent and potent one—of a larger nationwide effort to revise and rewrite the names of places and landmarks that contain offensive terms. The ability to name a place is a form of power, and all too many colonial place-names are hatred inscribed upon the land. To call a place Sq*** Valley or Sq*** Creek is to project disrespect onto geography. But power can also be reclaimed and recovered by the marginalized. Name-changing is more than just the acknowledgment of the United States’ history of brutality toward Indigenous peoples. It signals a desire to account for this past and to build a future that holds the possibility of righting profound wrongs. Erasing from the maps the slurs that once graffitied them is a way of affirming and respecting the pre–United States existence of those who were dispossessed.
Read the rest of the article here.