Haaland to remove racist terms from federal lands, including 31 in Michigan

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

By Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has formally ordered the removal of the term “squaw” from federal geographic features, including 31 in Michigan alone, marking a step forward to reconcile place names that are now widely understood as offensive toward Indigenous people.

Historically, “squaw” has been used as a racist, sexist and ethnic slur for Indigenous women. The term appears in the names of 13 lakes, 10 streams, three canals, two islands, one cape, one bay and one beach in Michigan.

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. 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 said in a statement on Nov. 19.

Haaland is the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary.

With secretarial orders 3404 and 3405, Haaland formally identifies the term “squaw” as derogatory, creates a federal task force to find replacement names for the areas and creates a Federal Advisory Committee to solicit, review and recommend changes to land unit names.

Haaland says removing the slur from the nation’s geographic features and land units will help to “[honor] the ancestors who have stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”

According to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names, there are 666 federal land units that contain the term.

In Michigan, the 31 areas with the name are located across 22 counties, including six in the U.P. and 16 in the Lower Peninsula.

“It is a long time coming and took an American Indian woman, our first Cabinet Member for the Federal Government, to get it right,” Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said on Wednesday.

It is a long time coming and took an American Indian woman, our first Cabinet Member for the Federal Government, to get it right.

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

“It is not a matter of political correctness but a matter of dignity. What other race is subjected to the exploitation of the use of such derogatory names?” Payment continued.

With the secretarial orders, the Board on Geographic Names has been ordered to implement procedures to remove the term from federal usage. That process will be expedited and coordinated with the newly established federal advisory committee, as name changes with the board usually go through a lengthy process.

That Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will have representation from tribes, tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, civil rights, anthropology and history experts, along with members of the general public, Haaland’s press release states.

Several states like Oregon, Maine, Montana and Minnesota legislatively prohibit the use of the word “squaw” in place names; Michigan does not.

The federal task force created by Haaland’s first secretarial order — formally known as the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force — is required to be established by or before Dec. 19. It must engage in tribal and public consultation on proposed name changes. 

Since 1947, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has had joint authority with the Board on Geographic Names and has final approval or review of the board’s actions.

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Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected] Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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