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66 Arizona locations among 600+ renamed to drop slur against Native women
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66 Arizona locations among 600+ renamed to drop slur against Native women

2 Southern Arizona areas lose racist, sexist reference as Interior Dep't announces changes

  • One of the peaks at the Santa Rita Mountains, about 40 miles south of Tucson, will be renamed to Santa Rita Peak to eliminate the use of a racist and sexist slur against Native Americans. The U.S. Department of Interior announced Thursday that almost 650 sites on public lands nationwide will remove the term from their names.
    Nate Merrill/Wikimedia CommonsOne of the peaks at the Santa Rita Mountains, about 40 miles south of Tucson, will be renamed to Santa Rita Peak to eliminate the use of a racist and sexist slur against Native Americans. The U.S. Department of Interior announced Thursday that almost 650 sites on public lands nationwide will remove the term from their names.

Hundreds of geographic sites nationwide, including two locations in Southern Arizona and 66 across the state, have been renamed to remove a racial and sexist slur against Native Americans, the U.S. Interior Department announced Thursday.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared the word “squaw” a derogatory term last November and created the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force responsible for identifying public lands and waters with the word in their names and coming up with replacements.

Nearly 650 locations around the country are having their names changed, including the 66 sites in Arizona. The name changes of the geographic features, listed and mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, are effective immediately.

The 13-member task force received more than 1,000 recommendations and consulted nearly 70 Native American tribes. They also worked with a federal advisory committee made of tribal members, tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, experts in civil rights, anthropology and history and members of the general public.

Two locations that were renamed are in Southern Arizona. One is a peak in the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest just north of Patagonia that will now be called Santa Rita Peak. The other is a gulch in the same area. What's now known as Santa Rita Gulch extends outside the boundaries of the forest, near Patagonia Lake.

Also renamed was Beacon Peak in southeastern Cochise County, near the Arizona-New Mexico border. The summit was formerly known as a mountain, with a name including the offensive term. One Arizona site considered "historical" was not renamed.

"The removal of such language is bittersweet as it addresses an everyday indignity that Native Americans are continuously subjected to, but also highlights the deeply-rooted anti-Native sentiments that our country was founded on and for which our government is yet to atone," Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly said last year.

Cázares-Kelly is a citizen of the Tohono O'odham Nation and the first Native American to hold a countywide seat in Pima County.

Names of natural landmarks on public lands and water are kept track of by the USGS Board of Geographic Names, created in 1890. The board approves which names are used a the federal level for geographical features such as valleys, rivers, lakes, peaks and mountains. The federal government is responsible for naming sites in areas such as the lands of the National Forest and National Park systems, the National Wilderness Preservation System, the National Landscape Conservation System and the National Wildlife Refuge System.

In late July, the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force submitted a list to the USGS with recommendations for renaming more than 660 places because they referenced the slur against Native American women. The board voted Thursday to rename just fewer than 650 of the sites.

Haaland, the first Native American to hold a U.S. cabinet position, said in a press release that she felt “a deep obligation” to make sure public lands are “welcoming.”

“That starts with removing racist and derogatory names that have graced federal locations for far too long,” the Interior Department secretary wrote. “We are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”

Squaw” comes from a Indigenous language from Nothern Canada. It originally meant “women,” but “has historically been used as an offensive ethnic, racial and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women,” according to the Interior Department.

With 67 locations that have had the word “squaw” in their names, Arizona ranks third among 37 states in a list compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, trailing only California, with 85, and Idaho, with 72.

In Arizona, the locations are in every county but Pima and sit on federal, state, private and tribal lands, including 11 on the Navajo, Fort Apache, San Carlos and Fort Mojave reservations. The Interior Department and USGS have removed racial slurs from place names in the past. In 1962, then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, an Arizona native and University of Arizona graduate, declared the N-word to be derogatory and eliminated its use. In 1974, the Board on Geographic Names did the same with a pejorative term for “Japanese.”

Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, which formerly had a name that began with the slur against Native women, was renamed in 2003 to honor Iraq War casualty Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to be killed in combat for the United States, only a month after her death. That process happened through the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names because the USGS Board on Geographic Names requires five years to pass after a person’s death before their name can be used in a place name. The federal board has since accepted the change.

The USGS noted in the spring that not all the locations it identified would necessarily get new names. Sites that are considered historical, have an unknown location or are not under the purview of the Board on Geographic Names may be excluded, for example. Squaw Beach in Mohave County is one of the places that USGS said is considered historical, the only such site in Arizona.

"It's a slur that is not only racist, but misogynist and it's been used for hundreds of years to insult and degrade Indigenous women," state Sen. Victoria Steele said last year. "The continuing use of this derogatory term as a way of naming our public lands and spaces is an ongoing reminder of our country's shameful racist history. It simply perpetuates the disgusting notion that Indigenous women are dirty, barbaric, sexual objects, and it needs to stop."

Cronkite News reporter Camila Pedrosa contributed background to this report.


Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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