Bill to strip derogatory term for Indigenous women from state land wins Senate approval

By: - March 2, 2022 2:14 pm

Wildflowers bloom near the base of Piestewa Peak in Phoenix in 2013. The mountain was renamed in 2003 from Sq— Peak because the word “sq—” is a derogatory term. There are still 67 places on federal lands in Arizona that use that term, and all will be renamed because of an order by the U.S. Department of Interior. Photo by Aznaturalist | Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

A bill that would prohibit the Arizona Board on Geographic and Historic Names from naming any geographic feature, place of historical significance, or specified road using the derogatory term “sq***” has passed the Arizona Senate and is headed to the House.

“Words like this have no place in our language and on our state lands,” Sen. Victoria Steele said during the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee Hearing on Feb. 16.

“Our state lands are meant to be celebrated and enjoyed and shared,” Steele continued. “There is no need to use it in a way that would be considered offensive to Native women, hurtful to Indigenous people.”


The bill was introduced by Steele, a Tucson Democrat, and won approval from the full Senate on Feb. 24, the same day the U.S. Department of Interior announced their replacement names for the more than 660 geographic features with the derogatory term on federal land, 67 of which are in Arizona. The bill passed 26-2.

In many cases, people see the term to simply mean Native woman or Native wife, but within the Indigenous community and among Indigenous women it has a more negative and offensive meaning tied to it. Historically been used to sexualize Indigenous women because it refers to female genitalia.

“For centuries this term has been considered and used as an offensive ethnic or racial and sexist slur against Indigenous women,” Steele said in the committee hearing. “Indigenous women should be honored and held sacred, not the recipient of insults and slurs. Let’s begin by removing these hurtful terms.”

In response to Steele’s remarks in the committee, Sen. Rick Gray said when he initially saw the bill, he was confused because he’s only ever known about the term is “that’s a wife, and I don’t see anything negative in that.”

“We’ve had Sq*** Peak, and I don’t look at that as derogatory. If anything, it’s saying, here is a Native American wife and we name a peak after her,” Gray, a Republican from Sun City, said. 

We’ve had Sq*** Peak, and I don’t look at that as derogatory.

– Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City

Steele said that the renaming of Piestewa Peak in 2008 is a more high-profile case that has occurred in the Valley, but it doesn’t surprise her that a lot of people don’t know the term is derogatory.

Steele said that although it may have been used to refer generally to a woman or wife, Europeans historically used it to sexualize Indigenous women — and that is how it is still perceived by Indigenous women.

“Our women were not valued and held sacred,” she said. “I’m literally shaking, I’m nervous inside because this is hard to talk about.”

“It reminds me of this painful part of history and it’s hard to talk about,” Steele said. “This word is received that way by Native women, and if you’ve never been a Native woman, you’ve probably never had occasion to even think about it. It is very hurtful.”

I’m literally shaking... If you’ve never been a Native woman, you’ve probably never had occasion to even think about it. It is very hurtful.

– Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson

Steele’s bill, Senate Bill 1279, would require the Board on Geographic and Historic Names to identify any geographic features, places of historical significance, highways, parkways, historic roads or scenic roads that include the term and work to propose a name change that is culturally appropriate, according to provisions in the bill.

During the committee hearing for the bill, Ginger Sykes Torres, a Navajo woman, spoke in support of the bill, saying that it’s a step toward empowerment for all residents in the community.

“Being Native American in Arizona is not easy sometimes,” Torres said. 

She recalled growing up in the Valley knowing that there was a peak bearing that hurtful name, and she knew exactly what that word meant.

“It is a derogatory word for Native women,” Torres said. “No one in this room would want ourselves, our mothers and our daughters to be referred to by this word or by this meaning.”

When Piestewa Peak was renamed, Torres said the street leading up to the mountain still had the former name. She was always concerned driving along that street that her children would someday see the name and they’d ask what the term meant. 

In 2021, the street was renamed. 

The bill would allow the board to initiate proposals for changes in or additions to geographic or historic names in Arizona. That would include accepting name change proposals from people, groups or agencies. The proposal and supporting information must be submitted to the board for evaluation and recommendation. 

Two Republican senators voted against the bill on the Senate floor: Nancy Barto and Warren Petersen. Barto told the Arizona Mirror that she didn’t see any point in changing names of places or geographic features, even if they are slurs.

“The work of righting injustices isn’t achieved in changing names, amending history books, and pulling down statues,” Barto said in an email. “Instead, this seems a part of the re-writing history that is occurring, much of which does a disservice to future generations.”

The bill is now making its way through the House, where it has been assigned to the Government & Elections Committee.


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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.