More than 2 dozen sites in Alaska will be given new names to erase derogatory words for Native women
The US Department of the Interior is moving forward with the process of changing hundreds of federally listed place names that contain the pejorative term “squaw”, including more than two dozen in Alaska.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland officially declared the pejorative word last November and posted a ordered saying he should be “erased from the national landscape and replaced forever”.
The name change campaign is long overdue and crucial, especially in Alaska, said Fairbanks filmmaker Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Gwich’in, who applauded Haaland’s role – a member of the Laguna Pueblo – in making advance the process.
“It’s a big deal to remove these nouns, these sexist, racist and demeaning terms,” Johnson said. “Terms like this really speak to the perspective of the mainstream culture on how they view us as Indigenous women and lends itself to why we are going missing and being murdered at such a high rate compared to d ‘other groups’.
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation. Indigenous women represent a disproportionately high part of the victims.
The word “squaw” evokes a long history of violence against Indigenous women that began with early explorers in 1492 and extends from miners and trappers to modern men’s camps, said Jody Potts, Han Gwich’in, activist and nature guide.
“I’m really looking forward to this change, so hopefully one day when I have granddaughters, they don’t have to live with and come to terms with this negative term for Indigenous women – but also violence that’s really rooted in that mentality,” Potts said. noted.
Push for original names
The Home Office is collecting feedback through tribal consultations and public comment until April 25.
As part of the renaming effort, the U.S. Geological Survey scoured place names for references to the word and then suggested alternatives, although new names are accepted.
The agency based its suggestions for possible replacement names on the existing names of five nearby geographic features, according to Mike Tischler, chairman of the Department of the Interior’s Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force.
Some, including Johnson, say the word should be replaced with original place names that have existed for millennia.
The Chickaloon Native Village is not officially involved in the consultation process, but suggests that any changes use original and descriptive place names unique to the Ahtna people, said traditional council member Lisa Wade.
That would make the place called Squaw Creek near Sheep Mountain, Water Lily Creek, or Xelt’aats’i Na’, Wade said.
“Why do we hold on so tightly to the ugly parts of the story?” she says, comparing the time it took to change the name to the recent toll of residential school atrocities. “How about we use some of the original names that have been around for thousands of years instead?”
The 27 renowned sites are scattered throughout the state, many of which are remnants of mining prospects or transportation corridors where white settlers congregated.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the term as “often offensive: a Native American woman” and “usually disparaging: woman, wife”. Its source is presumed to come from the Algonquin language “esqua”, “squa” or “skwa”.
The exact origins of some of the place names in Alaska are unclear. Nearly half, or 13, of the 27 toponyms to be changed are in the Yukon-Koyukuk region. Several were named by prospectors, others by riverboat pilots, according to Donald J. Orth’s “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names.”
Squaw Rapids in the North Fork of the Koyukuk River on the south slope of the Brooks Range was apparently named “after an Indian woman who drowned in her fury over fifty years ago,” the dictionary notes, referring to a 1956 report.
Road signs not included
The action seeks to change geographic names on the Federal Register, but not state and local names, or road names, such as Squaw Valley Circle in Eagle River or Old Squaw Loop near Wasilla.
The names of cultural or man-made features such as roads, streets, malls, churches, schools, hospitals and airports are outside the purview of the Board on Geographic Names, with some exceptions, officials say. from the USGS.
Anchorage city addressing officials say they are not changing road names as part of the federal government’s renaming effort.
“There is a public process that we have to follow on public roads, so we as a municipal government cannot just change it without notification and without input from owners,” said Carlene Wilson, manager of the municipal address.
Wilson said she had no intention of “moving something like this forward.”
The Mat-Su route, however, may see a change. The loop is part of a subdivision with roads named after birds, according to director of planning and land use Alex Strawn. The road containing the offending name apparently refers to a duck formerly known as “Oldsquaw” but now called long-tailed duck.
Someone called the borough to say they wanted the name of the road changed and got the paperwork to do so, but didn’t follow up, Strawn said. A petitioner must obtain the signatures of the majority of the street lot owners in favor of the change, or the borough veneer may make the change.
Now, the latter is likely to happen.
“Given the federal effort to remove ‘Squaw,’ I anticipate we will initiate the effort ourselves,” he wrote in an email.
Girls who got ahead of the process
At Dillingham, three fifth graders began the name change process last year, months before the federal order was even issued.
The trio – Trista and Alora Wassily and Harmony Larson – began lobbying to change the name of Squaw Creek in April 2021. The approximately 8km creek runs from a lake to the Nushagak River. Her name appears in at least half a dozen places around Dillingham, the girls have found.
Now sixth-graders, they worked with the 3,100-member Curyung tribe to come up with another name: Seven Sisters Creek, based on a local story that seven sisters came to live in the area in the early 1900s and became later the matriarchs of modern Curyung families.
For white men, the creek became known as a place to find a Native woman and they called it by the racialized term for a Native woman.
But now the 60-day comment window that accompanies the federal name change process is picking up the pace the tribe would have preferred, said Curyung Tribe Administrator Courtenay Carty. They had hoped for more time to reach out to elders and tribesmen before making a final decision on which name to come up with.
The federal suggestions also do not include Seven Sisters Creek. Instead, the USGS suggests basing the creek’s new name on local landmarks Bradford Point, Grassy Island, Snag Point, Sheep Island, or Picnic Point.
Other naming ideas can be submitted through the comments process, said Tischler of the Interior Ministry’s task force.
The tribe is also pushing for independent tribal consultation on change with the Department of the Interior as well as the group tribal consultation that is already planned, officials said.
“We’ve always taken the position if the federal government or the state government does something in our home territories, then they should consult with us,” First Chief Jonathan “JJ” Larson said. “We live here, we’ve been here since before the federal government came. We have extensive knowledge of the region.