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The U.S. looks to replace a derogatory name used hundreds of times on federal lands

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks with reporters on Feb. 15 about visiting several communities and sites in Mississippi to honor individuals and events that advanced the civil rights movement.
Rogelio V. Solis
/
AP
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks with reporters on Feb. 15 about visiting several communities and sites in Mississippi to honor individuals and events that advanced the civil rights movement.

The Department of the Interior is moving forward with plans to remove a name the department declared to be derogatory from federal lands.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland formed a task force and declared the word "squaw" derogatory in November 2021. Now, the department is seeking public comment on name replacements for the more than 660 geographic features that contain the word.

Historically, the term has been used as "an offensive ethnic, racial, and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women," the department noted. The term originated from the Algonquian word for "woman," but its meanings has been skewed for centuries by white people.

The task force, dubbed the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, also moved to replace the word with "sq_ _ _" in official communications.

"Words matter, particularly in our work to make our nation's public lands and waters accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds," Haaland said. "Consideration of these replacements is a big step forward in our efforts to remove derogatory terms whose expiration dates are long overdue."

Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

The 13-member task force includes representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights.

The task force will consult tribes and the general public in the renaming effort, the department said. Comments can be submitted by mail and through an online portal on Regulations.gov.

"Throughout this process, broad engagement with Tribes, stakeholders and the general public will help us advance our goals of equity and inclusion," Haaland said.

Outside of federal lands, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe removed the derogatory word from the name last year, renaming itself Palisades Tahoe after input from Native Americans.

The Washoe tribe commended the move in a statement.

"The word itself is a constant reminder of the unjust treatment of the Native people, of the Washoe people," said Darrel Cruz of the Washoe Tribe Historic Preservation Office. "It's a constant reminder of those time periods when it was not good for us. It's a term that was inflicted upon us by somebody else and we don't agree with it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 23, 2022 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. She is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.