A derogatory word has been removed from the names of places on federal lands, including 66 sites in AZ

By: - September 8, 2022 2:53 pm

Nearly 650 geographic features on federal land were officially renamed on Sept. 8, 2022, the final step in removing a derogatory and sexist slur from federal lands. Map courtesy U.S Geological Survey

Nearly all federal geographic features using the derogatory word sq*** have formally been renamed, after the U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday released new names for 643 locations across the United States, including 66 in Arizona. 

The name change is the final step in the historic effort launched nearly a year ago by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland after she declared “sq***” a derogatory term because of its historical use as an offensive ethnic, racial and sexist slur for Indigenous women.

“I feel a deep obligation to use my platform to ensure that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming,” Haaland said. “That starts with removing racist and derogatory names that have graced federal locations for far too long.”

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In Arizona, 66 of the 67 geographic locations were renamed. The one site retained its name because it is listed as a historical site by the Board on Geographic Names.

The Board on Geographic Names has two definitions for a historical feature, according to U.S. Geological Survey Public Affairs Specialist Alex Demas. 

“In most cases, it refers to a feature that no longer exists or no longer serves its original function,” Demas said in an email response to the Arizona Mirror. Examples include a manmade feature like a dam or a natural feature like a lake.

“The second use of historical refers to places that still exist but the name has fallen out of local use,” he said. “If we are informed by the community that no one in the area knows or uses the name, we will consider making it historical.”

As for the one site in Arizona, Demas said that it appears that the physical geographic feature no longer exists and there was no evidence that the name is used locally. That led it to be considered historical, and not needing to be renamed.

Many of the geographic features renamed in Arizona included reservoirs and summits. Some of the name changes used the local Indigenous language to describe the area, but many were derived from nearby geographic features.

For instance, two streams in Yavapai county are now named Ché Yagoodigúhn Creek and Iiyá Draw. The Yavapai Apache Nation and Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe are located within Yavapai County, and the new names are derived from their traditional languages.

Two Democratic state lawmakers, Rep. Jennifer Jermaine and Sen. Victoria Steele, introduced a similar measure during this year’s legislative session, but their bill never received a hearing.

“Changing the names is important to our Native community,” Jermaine wrote in a text message to the Mirror. “It is important to all women to ensure geographic sites do not include defamatory terms meant to degrade and harm women in their names.”

Jermaine praised the work that Haaland has been able to do in renaming the geographic sites on federal land, and she believes that states should be working to do the same thing. 

Steele was excited when she saw the news about the name changes. She was angry when she was not able to get her bill through on a state level, but seeing it pass on the federal level, and through the work of an Indigenous woman, makes her happy.

“This means so much to me,” Steele said. “This goes to show the importance of having Indigenous representation at the highest level.”

Steele said she’s just sorry she couldn’t do it on a state level and that it took so long for it to happen on a federal level.

“It’s such a disgusting term,” Steele said. “It’s derogatory, sexist, racist and cruel; and to have public spaces named with a derogatory term doesn’t need to happen and it should not have happened.”

The name changes come after a lengthy process carried out by the Board on Geographic Names and the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, which was established via secretarial order and included tribal and federal representatives.

“I am grateful to the members of the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force and the Board on Geographic Names for their efforts to prioritize this important work,” Haaland said. “Together, we are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”

The Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force received more than 1,000 recommendations for name changes during the public comment period, according to the Department of Interior. The task force worked with nearly 70 tribal governments in nation-to-nation consultations, which resulted in several hundred more recommendations. 

After the public comment and tribal consultation periods closed on April 25, the task force reviewed all the information and developed a list of final recommendations, and submitted it to the Board on Geographic Names on July 22. 

The board then approved the names during a meeting on Sept. 8. Once the names were decided upon by the board, they are immediately official for federal use, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A full list of the names can be found on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

***This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Victoria Steele.

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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. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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