As WA changes racially derogatory place names, alternatives risk ‘erasing women, history of land’

Apr 5, 2022, 6:04 PM
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks at the Cherokee Immersion School (AP)

Under a directive announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington state is set to rename 18 geographic location names that have been deemed derogatory to Native American women.

Proposal to nix derogatory term targets hundreds of US sites

Officially, there are six name change options for eighteen different sites in Washington state. For example, Squaw Creek Ridge could become Woody Creek. It’s part of a federal effort to change hundreds of sites in three dozen states that include the word “squaw”.

The agency has issued its own list of alternatives. The methodology for that process involved computer-generated findings of six nearby geographic locations and nominating one as the name to replace specific locations that are slurs against Native American women.

That runs the risk of “erasing those women and their history on the land,” as Sara Palmer, an archaeologist with the state’s natural resources department, put it to the board in a committee hearing Tuesday.

“Our committee retains, under state law, our ability to review federal names as new proposals come in. We can go back and make those corrections within the boundaries of the laws and regulations under which we operate,” Palmer added.

“I can’t sit down personally and just write a big report where I say, ‘we’re gonna do this, this, this, and this.’ It’s not what the Legislature set us up to do. We need to seek public input, right? Which is a good thing. This is an unprecedented situation.”

To remedy the situation, Palmer recommended, to no objection, that the committee to rename the landmarks meet outside what’s regularly scheduled. However, they require the public’s input to field enough suggestions to meet the goal of retaining the history of the land once the Indigenous names are replaced.

“We’re addressing this because we also hear that there is a second secretarial order addressing other derogatory names kind of coming down the pipe. We don’t yet exactly know how that’s going to be implemented. If this one is any indication, we may not know until we get a Federal Register notice, which is kind of exciting.”

“We feel strongly that an effort should be made to identify the individual women or historical events or women’s activities that are commemorated by these names, and to do some public outreach.”

Comments can be submitted, by April 25, to the Washington Department of Natural Resources. A listing of public outreach meetings can be found here.

KIRO Newsradio’s Chris Martin contributed to this report 

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As WA changes racially derogatory place names, alternatives risk ‘erasing women, history of land’