All Over The Map: ‘Placeholders’ may temporarily replace derogatory names in Washington

Apr 8, 2022, 9:36 AM | Updated: Apr 11, 2022, 11:39 am
Derogatory names...
The name of a lake in Kittitas County is one of 18 places in Washington which includes this derogatory term for an Indigenous woman. It would be renamed for the Cle Elum River or another nearby geographic feature under an order issued in February by the Department of Interior; the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names wants a more thoughtful and deliberative process. (USGS Archives)
(USGS Archives)

A state committee on Thursday held the second of two special meetings to address how to comply with a recent order from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The order, which was issued earlier this year, calls for the rapid removal of a specific derogatory place name from all 50 states, including 18 locations in Washington.

Last November, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland – who’s the first Indigenous person to hold that office – issued Secretarial Order 3404 which declared a particular word for Indigenous women used in many place-names around the country to be derogatory. The Department of Interior then put in motion a process to eliminate that word from the federal database of geographic names. The information in that database comes from each state, and so changing those names typically involves policy updates or administrative actions by each state.

In February 2022, the Interior Department issued a list of 650 place names which include this derogatory term — including those 18 locations in Washington — along with recommended replacements for each.

The Evergreen State locations aren’t exactly well-known spots, most are in Eastern Washington, and none are located in or near urban or even suburban areas, says Sara Palmer. Palmer is the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ State Lands Archaeologist, and also serves as Chair of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, the state government entity that reviews proposals to change place-names in the Evergreen State which formalizes those changes with the federal government.

“They’re a bit geographically remote,” Palmer told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday afternoon.

The process of adopting those recommended replacement names, as laid out by the Department of Interior, is both complex and simplistic. The basic idea for changing any of the place names which include the derogatory word is to keep the generic geographic term – such as “lake” or “river” or “mountain” – but replace the derogatory portion with a name chosen from one of several nearby non-derogatorily-named features.

Thus, for a purely hypothetical and somewhat simplified example, let’s say there was a stream called “Derogatory Creek” that flowed into Lake Washington in Renton. Under the federal guidelines, the old name could be changed to “Washington Creek” or “Renton Creek.”

DNR’s Sara Palmer says the state committee wholeheartedly supports the Department of Interior’s effort to eliminate the particular derogatory term addressed by this effort. Removal of that term (and others) has been happening here gradually for many years, since place-name changing in our state is a citizen-driven process and not something the state can do on its own.

“We’ve been working on changing derogatory place names for decades, actually, so this is very much in keeping with the work that we’ve been doing,” Palmer said. “And I think everybody on our committee really agrees with the intent of the order.”

But, Palmer’s committee does not agree with the structure of the replacement process.

“What [the Department of Interior has] done, is they’ve suggested a list of substitute names, and the way that they came up with that list was that they went around and they picked the five closest points,” Palmer said. “And the problem with that that we see, [is that] it’s kind of a computerized process, and the issue with that that we see here in Washington is then we end up naming a bunch of stuff things like ‘Columbia’ and ‘Bonneville’ and ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’”

The process, Palmer says, misses the point of why those places were given the name – with the word that’s now considered derogatory – in the first place.

“The loss that were concerned about is that these things that were named in a very imperfect and derogatory way for Indigenous women, [and they] are often locations where indigenous women were doing activities, were doing food gathering, [and was where] they lived,” Palmer said. “Our concern is that we want to retain that history – that’s an important part of Washington State history.”

“So, what we are really hoping to see is proposals [for replacement names] come in from tribes, from our communities that would retain that history on the landscape,” Palmer said.

The committee particularly doesn’t like the Department of Interior’s short timeline. With April 25, 2022 as the deadline, anyone can submit comments on the proposed replacement names for those 18 places in Washington (or the other proposed changes elsewhere in the United States) – letting the federal government know whether you object, you agree, or if you have a better idea for a replacement name. After that, the Department could take sweeping action on the suggested replacement names.

But, Sara Palmer says, it’s the “better idea” part – for example, a specific name for a specific place that might honor a specific Indigenous woman whose identity might take time to discover – that typically takes much longer than the two month period allowed by the Department of Interior.

Thoughtful and deliberate place-name changes take more time than this, Palmer says.

When there’s not a federal mandate – a single derogatory term for Black people and another for those of Japanese descent were changed across the board in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively –  the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names typically takes at least a year to carefully review individual name changes that have been proposed by citizens or Tribes.

The DNR committee, Palmer says, wants to find names that reflect the long and diverse history of what’s now the Evergreen State – which is to say, that hypothetical swap from “Derogatory Creek” to “Washington Creek” or “Renton Creek” may not be the best choice.

When the committee met on Thursday, they finalized a letter that was then sent to the Department of Interior. The letter lays out the committee’s concerns, and asks for more time beyond April 25 to allow the people of Washington to more fully and deliberately participate in proposing new and more appropriate names.

KIRO Newsradio contacted the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. at midday Pacific Time on Thursday. A department spokesperson responded via email on Monday, declining to comment on Sara Palmer’s letter, but promising to loop back when there is “more to share on the process.”

Sara Palmer told KIRO Newsradio that she doesn’t expect to hear anything until early summer; she believes the committee’s letter will be considered one more piece of feedback for the period that ends April 25.

“I would think maybe early summer seems to me like we may hear something more about next steps,” Palmer predicts. “If I’m not hearing anything from them by mid-June, I might pick up the phone and make some calls.”

What Palmer won’t predict is what the Department of Interior’s response will look like. She does acknowledge one possible scenario whereby the committee’s letter is ignored and the federal government goes ahead and changes those 18 names to the proximity-based replacements.

“One thing that I will say is even if the federal government does put these ‘adjacent names’ on the map in the short-term, the state retains all of its existing authority to change those again,” Palmer said. “So, even if we get these, maybe we’ll call them ‘placeholder names.’”

If that happens, Palmer says, it’s not the end of the story.

“Even if the feds do that, we can still come back if we get help from the public, if we get help from tribes and historical societies and concerned citizens,” Palmer said. “And we can go ahead and we can change them again, and we can make sure that we preserve our history and that we continue that that reflection.”

“I think that really was more the Secretary’s intent in putting this order forward,” Palmer continued. “But, yes, sometimes the mechanics on these things can be complicated.”

Regardless of how the process may evolve or be altered, Sara Palmer encourages public comment on the federal initiative before the April 25 deadline, and in any subsequent process here at the state level no matter how the Department of Interior chooses to proceed.

“I totally understand why the Secretary of Interior is like, ‘Hey, this has gone on long enough. It’s got to change,’” Palmer said. “I get that and I fully respect it. At the same time, we have these other systems that are designed to work in a different way.”

“I think we just have to try to keep an open dialogue with Interior, with people in the community, with our tribes, with everybody who’s involved and engaged in this, and keep that dialogue happening and see where that conversation takes us,” Palmer said. “I think, ultimately, it’s going to take us to a really good place for the people Washington, and I’m excited about working on it.”

Special thanks to Mark Bozanich for providing additional assistance and information for this story.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: ‘Placeholders’ may temporarily replace derogatory names in Washington