The head of President Joe Biden’s Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland, announced on Friday that she has set up a formal “process to review and replace” so-called “derogatory” names from federal lands.
In a press release, Haaland, a Native American and former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, noted that terms like “squaw” are unacceptable while noting that she has ordered the Board on Geographic Names, the federal entity in charge of naming geographic places, to implement changes that would see the term removed from being used on federal properties.
“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,” said Haaland. “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.”
Under Secretarial Order 3404, Haaland created the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, which is charged with removing the term ‘squaw’ identified in more than 650 federal land units, according to a government database. The order also instructs the task force to “engage in Tribal consultation and consider public feedback on proposed name changes,” the press release added.
Separately, Secretarial Order 3405 “creates a Federal Advisory Committee to broadly solicit, review, and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal land unit names,” said the press release, which adds:
The Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will include representation from Indian Tribes, Tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, civil rights, anthropology, and history experts, and members of the general public. It will establish a process to solicit and assist with proposals to the Secretary to change derogatory names, and will include engagement with Tribes, state and local governments, and the public.
“Together, the Secretarial Orders will accelerate the process by which derogatory names are identified and replaced. Currently, the Board on Geographic Names is structured, by design, to act on a case-by-case basis through a process that puts the onus on the proponents to identify the offensive name and to suggest a replacement,” said the Interior Department.
“The process to secure review and approvals can be lengthy, often taking years to complete a name change. Currently, there are hundreds of name changes pending before the Board. The newly established Federal Advisory Committee will facilitate a proactive and systematic development and review of these proposals, in consultation with local community representatives,” the agency continued.
The press release noted that in the past, the department has previously identified names considered derogatory and were eventually scrubbed. For instance, in 1962, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall identified the ‘n-word’ as derogatory and instructed the BGN to devise a policy to discontinue its use. And in 1974, the same board said that a pejorative term for the ethnic description of “Japanese” was also derogatory and eliminated its usage.
The department also noted that a number of states including Maine, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon have passed laws eliminating use of the word “squaw” in geographical place names. There is legislation pending in both chambers of Congress to deal with derogatory names as well on federal public lands.
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