Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on Friday ordered the word “squaw” to be removed from all federal lands.
Haaland also ordered the creation of an advisory committee that will assist an existing federal board with development and review of name-changing proposals that affect derogatory names.
Haaland’s announcement comes just weeks after a Colorado board recommended that Squaw Mountain in Clear creek County be renamed Mount Mestaa’ehehe (pronounced mess-tah-HEY), in honor of “Owl Woman,” a Southern Cheyenne leader and wife of William Bent.
According to the proposal submitted by proponent Teanna Limpy, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Owl Woman “helped negotiate trade between the many groups who traded at Bent’s Fort, and helped maintain good relations between the white people and the Native people.”
Limpy added: “As the eldest daughter of the powerful Cheyenne leader White Thunder, Mestaa’ehehe worked as a translator and important bridge between the indigenous tribes and the newcomers, in an era before the military-ordered massacres and removals.”
The recommendation from the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board then went to Gov. Jared Polis, who told the board last month he originally was inclined to reject the recommendation because he found the name too difficult to pronounce. He opined that people would continue to call it Squaw Mountain if they, too, struggled to pronounce it.
His office confirmed Friday that he approved the recommendation, which moves on to the Board of Geographic Names, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, for final approval.
The mountain is located in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. According to the board, “there are two other summits named Squaw Mountain, 70 miles to the south-southeast and 130 miles to the northwest. Three streams named Squaw Creek are located between 30 and 60 miles to the west. Within Colorado, there are 36 features, both natural and man-made, that contain the word “Squaw.”
Two other proposals await action from both the Colorado and federal boards on locations with “squaw” in the title, both in Teller County: Squaw Gulch and Squaw Mountain. Neither appear to be on federal lands.
Haaland’s order pointed out that more than 650 geographic locations on federal lands contain the word “squaw.” The word, which is believed to be an English version of a Mohawk word for the female genitalia is offensive to Native Americans.
The advisory board she ordered Friday could address an issue raised just yesterday during a meeting of the state board. Jennifer Runyon, the board’s liaison to the Colorado group, complimented the Colorado board for its passion and diligence in discussing name changes, hinting that the federal board, which has thousands of proposals in front of it, doesn’t necessarily have the ability to conduct deep dives.
The Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will be comprised of at least four who will be members of an Indian tribe, one to represent a tribal organization, one to represent a Native Hawaiian organization, four with backgrounds in civil rights or race relations; four with expertise in anthropology, cultural studies, geography, or history; and, at least three members of the “general public.”
That advisory board, however, will forward its recommendations to the Secretary, not to the federal naming board. The order doesn’t identify how that relationship will work.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” said Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet official. “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.” Haaland is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and a former congresswoman from New Mexico.
“It is well past time for us, as a nation, to move forward, beyond these derogatory terms, and show Native people — and all people — equal respect,” said John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, in a statement to Reuters.
Reuters contributed to this report.