On Friday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – a member of Laguna Pueblo – ordered that the term “squaw” be removed from federal land designations.
It should be pointed out that the term is a slur referring to female genitalia. Translate “squaw” into English derogatories in the same vein and you can understand why Native Americans find the term offensive.
In presenting her written announcement, Haaland said, “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.”
Her action included two orders. The first, “identifies the term ‘squaw’ as derogatory and provides direction to the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) to replace it.”
Her directive provided a historical context, too:
“From time to time, derogatory names have been identified by the Secretary or the BGN and have been comprehensively replaced. In 1962, Secretary Udall identified a pejorative term for ‘African-Americans’ as derogatory, and directed that the BGN develop a policy to eliminate its use. In 1974, the BGN identified a pejorative term for ‘Japanese’ as derogatory and eliminated its use. When referring to the pejorative term for “African-Americans”, Secretary Udall commented ‘[w]hatever the overtones of the word were in the past, unquestionably a great many people now consider it derogatory or worse.’ The time has come to recognize that the term “squaw” is no less derogatory than others which have been identified and should also be erased from the National landscape and forever replaced.”
The U.S. Geographical Survey is to provide a list of “squaw” usages – Jennifer Bendery of Huffington Post says there are more than 650 – to the BGN for action.
The second order creates a Federal Advisory Committee “to address other derogatory geographic names.”
In my days of living in Borger, Texas, and Woodward, I would often plan trips to see my parents in Duncan via Lawton. This gave me the opportunity to visit the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. And, when I didn’t picnic at Sunset Lake, I had the greater variety of restaurants in Lawton to consider.
Coming into Lawton from the west, I found myself crossing, re-crossing and crossing yet again Squaw Creek. And then one day I didn’t. Suddenly the creek winding through Lawton was Numu Creek. (“Numunu” is Comanche for “The People.”)
A simple solution to a problem of historic bigotry. An acknowledgement that local officials value their Comanche Nation neighbors as people and not objects.
But, such simple solutions don’t always find acceptance, especially among people who revel in this country’s historic bigotry and oppression as justification for their current ignorant beliefs.
We can expect some reactionaries to scream about “political correctness.” But, what is PC in their usage but a slur itself for the basic politeness that our parents, teachers and preachers tried to instill in us?
Their will be resistance, too, from the crowd crowing racist chants in support of racist sports mascots. And, of course, the two new orders only apply to federal geographic designations.
Two of my favorite towns on my vacations north by northwest are Custer City, S.D., and Sheridan, WY, both named after genocidal racists. Custer City (they have restored that appellation lately) honors the guy who illegally led the expedition into the Black Hills and discovered the gold which sparked the gold rush which wrested Paha Sapa (the Lakota name for the mountains) from the tribes in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty.
Gen. Phil Sheridan was his boss. In fact, if you follow Sheridan Road in Lawton north to Fort Sill, you can be pretty certain of standing (if you move around) where Sheridan infamously declared, “The only good Indian I ever saw was dead.”
So, racists take heart. There will always be many places where you can fuel your hatred. The rest of us will celebrate a long-overdue correction of the national map. You know, there are plenty of people – First Nation and pioneers – worthy of being remembered.
(Duncan resident Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)