The U.S. Department of the Interior (“Interior”) will replace names for 28 geographic sites in the Alaska that contain the word “squaw.”
The 28 Alaska sites are among 660 sites nationwide identified in a February 23 notice from Interior’s Derogatory Names Task Force to be renamed. The notice follows a November 2021 order from Interior Secretary Haaland declaring the word “squaw” derogatory and initiating removal of the word from federal use. Here is the Secretary of the Interior’s order, as well as the list of sites to be renamed.
For each location, the task force developed five alternative replacement names based on nearby geographic features.
For example, there are four “Squaw Creeks” in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough – one (a tributary of Caribou Creek near Chickaloon) has five replacement names which are “Sheep Mountain,” “Fortress Ridge,” “Syncline Mountain,” “Belanger Pass,” “Tahneta Pass”. The replacement name will only replace the modifier “Squaw,” so, for example, if “Tahneta Pass” is chosen, the creek would be renamed “Tahneta Creek”.
The federal Board on Geographic Names (BGN), made up of representatives from federal agencies, was established in 1947 to maintain consistent geographic name usage throughout the federal government. BGN’s guiding principle is to approve names in present-day local usage. However, an exception may arise if the present name is derogatory to a racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group. The BGN will not approve a named determined derogatory by the Secretary.
“Squaw” is not the first derogatory word identified by an Interior Secretary. In 1962, Secretary Stewart Udall identified a term for “African-Americans” as derogatory and directed BGN to eliminate its use. In 1974, a pejorative term for “Japanese” was eliminated and replaced.
As to her decision, Secretary Haaland wrote: “[t]he time has come to recognize that the term “squaw” is no less derogatory than others which have been identified and should also be erased from the National landscape and forever replaced.”
The task force will engage in tribal consultation regarding the name changes. Three virtual meetings are planned in March, and written comments due by April 24. The task force will consider additional proposed candidate names and relevant comments received as part of the tribal consultation process.