The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How we expunged a racist, sexist slur from hundreds of public lands

A sign in 2020 marked the 1960 Winter Olympics at a California ski resort. The resort, whose name included a derogatory term for Native American women, was changed to Palisades Tahoe in 2021.

Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, is the secretary of the Interior Department.

America’s public lands belong to all of us, and we have a responsibility to ensure that these lands are accessible and welcoming to everyone. However, over the course of our history, many such lands were named using a hateful and derogatory term for Indigenous women. It’s a word that carries with it a history of brutality, misogyny and dehumanization.

This month, we succeeded in removing it from the names of nearly 650 federal land units.

The word is “squaw” — a term so offensive that I have never used it except in issuing the order to make the name change, and beyond this sentence I will not repeat it here or anywhere. It was stolen from the word for “woman” in one specific Indigenous language, I believe Algonquian. The word was then perverted — as so many Indigenous words and customs were — turning it into a broad racial slur, a caricature that removed individual identity and dignity from all women of Native American heritage.

This is not a casual insult. 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. 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.

The insidious result was to deny the humanity of generations of Native wives, daughters and mothers, as if using cheap slang would make the victims somehow deserving of assault — even to this day.

The damage inherent in this word cannot be overstated.

“Almost every young woman growing up on a reservation going into a non-reservation school has heard that term, has been called that,” Bobbi Webster, from the Oneida Nation, told a Wisconsin news channel. “It was mean, and it was spiteful, and it was very hurtful.” When Native Americans hear it, we feel the suffering of our ancestors and the traumas of the past. It has no place in our national vocabulary.

And so, last November, I issued Secretary’s Order 3404, which declared this word to be a derogatory term and created a task force to identify its use in names of geographic features on federal lands and find replacements, with implementation to be carried out by the federal Board on Geographic Names (BGN). The Interior Department moved quickly through an open and transparent process, including a public comment period to receive recommendations for new names, the evaluation of different recommendations for the same features from tribal and other sources and the reconciling of diverse opinions. This month, the BGN voted on final replacements for 643 offensive names, effective immediately.

While the decision affects land units under the BGN’s jurisdiction, many states and communities have made or are working on similar changes. I have been particularly proud to follow the efforts of a group of fifth- and sixth-grade Native girls trying to change the racist, sexist name of a creek in their Alaska village to “Seven Sisters.”

Yes, this is just one word. But words matter.

The historical persecution of Indigenous women has continued in modern times as they suffer disproportionate rates of assault, abduction and murder. And far too often, cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons, men and women alike, have gone unsolved. The search for justice for these crimes has been underfunded for decades, leaving many — including me — to believe that these crimes are somehow tragically seen as less worthy of investigation.

Changing geographic names is a step my department was able to take — a significant step — in affirming the value of Indigenous women. Furthermore, it demonstrates my commitment to ensuring that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming. These should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage, not perpetuate legacies of oppression.

On a broader scale, it is a step toward the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of building an inclusive America — a place where communities demonstrate inherent respect and value for every person who lives in this beautiful country that we call home. It will take much more time to fully address the legacy of injustice in our nation, but we have a responsibility to right those wrongs now. We must do so whenever we have the opportunity.

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