Idaho has some catching up to do when it comes to the removal of the “s-word” from place names.
Last month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared that the word “squaw” — historically used as an ethnic, racial and sexist slur, particularly for native American women — needs to be removed from all federal usage. She organized a task force to work to remove the word from maps and places across the U.S.
States such as Montana, Oregon, Minnesota, Maine and Oklahoma are ahead of the curve having already purged the word from place names.
Idaho has made a start, but many s-words still linger. A simple search of the USGS Geographic Names Information System online shows 70 places in Idaho with the word “squaw” next to it. There are Squaw creeks, meadows, springs, peaks, buttes, points, lakes, flats, canyons, and reservoirs. Bonneville County is listed as having four Squaw Creek names on the map. Other eastern Idaho counties with the derogatory name on maps include Custer, Lemhi, Caribou, Butte, and Franklin.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a news release. “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.”
The Board on Geographic Names, a committee with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USGS and Bureau of Indian Affairs, has been tasked with identifying and finding replacement names for the hundreds of s-words across America.
The new directive hopes to streamline the process of removing the s-word, but Tricia Canaday, of the Idaho State Historic Preservation office over the Idaho Geographic Names Advisory Council, said it will still take some time. Canaday said it is expected to take months to identify all the places where the word is used, then as many or more months to find suitable replacement names, then republish the new names.
“We’re still working through what the secretarial order is and its implications are for our state,” Canaday said. “It appears that the states have been removed from the process. All of that name change process and decision-making will take place at the federal level.”
Evan Guzik, of the Bridger-Teton National Forest headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming, said his office is working on the process.
“We do have some locations that will need to be renamed,” Guzik said in an email. “We’ve started the process to identify all the geographic features with derogatory and offensive names. Once we have identified all the features we will work with our public, local government, and tribal officials to find suitable replacements that honor the history of these locations while making them inclusive and welcoming to our visitors.”
Canaday said the normal naming process is to petition the state council, who then submits it to the national naming board for approval. The national board sends back its recommendation to the state board.
“Our Idaho geographic board makes a recommendation based on input from local governments or the public or anybody,” she said. “They vote and make a recommendation to the national board of geographic names. They review that and make a formal decision and either change the name or don’t. It bounces back and forth. It usually starts with somebody in Idaho who makes a request in Washington who bounces it back to us, then we make a recommendation back to Washington.”
Canaday said the new directive from the national Board on Geographic Names skips the state input step.
“When I read the secretarial order, it seems we don’t have a role in this particular process,” she said.
Haaland’s order to strike the s-word is similar to a purging that took place in the 1960s when then Interior Secretary Stewart Udall worked to strike the “n-word” from U.S. place names, and in 1974, the Board of Geographic Names went after a derogatory name for Japanese.
“The 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,” Haaland said in her directive.
Canaday said names of man-made places and things need to be changed by the government or property owner in which they reside. For example, a city or county road, building or reservoir can simply be changed by that county or city without going through the state naming board or the national board.
But changing names sometimes brings controversy, and occasionally, groups offer up different new names for the same geographic feature.
“We think there is a lot of potential for push back,” Canady said. “Understandably people hold these places close to their hearts and they know them by a certain name. You can understand why people wouldn’t want those kinds of changes. On the other hand, there is the issue that the term is viewed as a derogatory term by many and certainly by our tribes. It’s a difficult balancing act to figure out what’s best.”