Changing racist place names, including the s-word

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared the “s-word” (squaw) derogatory and began a process to remove it and other derogatory names from various geographic features around the county.

This is part of a growing effort to remove racist and derogatory place names.

For instance, a federal panel recently approved renaming S-word Mountain in Colorado to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain, which honors Owl Woman, an influential translator who mediated between Native people and white colonists. Last fall, the S-word Valley Ski Resort in California renamed itself Palisades Tahoe.

There are several origin stories for the s-word, according to an article in Indian Country Today.

In researching its meaning, s-word is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman. According to which historian you speak to on any given day or which link you click in a Google search, there are several theories regarding the word’s origin. Most notably negative and perhaps the most feared definition of the word is that s-word translates to vagina.

Though the origins of s-word may have several questionably confirmed sources historically, Indigenous women say that the term is offensive. 

Indian Country Today

Problematic place names abound.

A Guide to Changing Racist and Offensive Names on Public Land was created by The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO) and The Wilderness Society.

“Across the United States, thousands of mountains, rivers, lakes and other features on public lands bear racist and offensive names,” the guide said. “From tributes to Confederate leaders, to ethnic and misogynistic slurs, these names perpetuate a violent and oppressive history of colonization and make public lands less welcoming.”

The Guide provides a step-by-step description on how to change a place name.

“In 2015, Vocativ conducted a comprehensive survey that found 1,441 places named with racial slurs, the vast majority of which are geographic features under the purview of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names,” the Guide said. Examples include:

  • “558 places named with words or references offensive to African Americans, including places named “Uncle Tom,” “pickaninny,” and “Jim Crow.”
  • 30 places named “Chinaman.”
  • More than 600 places named ‘squaw,’ a sexual and racial slur against Native American women”

Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) is the first Native American to hold a federal cabinet position. Last November, she issued an order declaring the s-word derogatory and needing replacement.

Since then, federal officials have developed a list of troubling place names and proposed some alternative names, Indian Country Today reported. This month, it is holding three virtual meetings with Native nations. Written comments will be accepted through April 24.”

The federal government is putting forward five possible replacement names for each site.

Minnesota only has three sites on the list: The City of S-word Lake and S-word Lake in Itasca County and S-word Lake in Pine County. Suggested replacement names include “Round Lake,” “Popple River,” and “Rock Creek.”

Click here and here for more information on how to comment.

In Minneapolis, there’s an effort to change Columbus Avenue to Oyáte Avenue. Oyáte is the Dakota word for “The People.”

Columbus Avenue runs 60 blocks from 18th Street near downtown Minneapolis to 78th Street in Richfield.

Organizers have created a website, and explain the effort as “step towards living in right relationship with each other. We don’t want to live on a street that evokes domination, theft, loss, and grief.”

The group has consulted with Makoce Ikikcupi, a Dakota land recovery project, on its work.

The group is trying to raise $15,000 for the project, as there are many fees to pay, including, if successful, the price of new street signs. For more information, see the website.

One thought on “Changing racist place names, including the s-word

  1. On a day when I’m praying for the Ukrainian people, I read that the US Dept. of the Interior, under Interior secretary Haaland’s leadership, is making progress on removing geographical names that are discriminatory to indigenous people and people of color. This news gives me hope!


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