Lawmaker Proposes Replacing Offensive Montana Place Names

The bill would require state and other agencies to remove the terms from maps, signs and markers when age or vandalism calls for an update

By LISA BAUMANN, Associated Press

HELENA —The words “half-breed” and “breed” are offensive, and it’s the government’s duty to remove them from the names of creeks and other places in Montana, a state lawmaker says.

Republican Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer of Superior on Thursday introduced a bill in the State Administration Committee that would require state and other agencies to strip the terms from maps, signs and markers when age or vandalism calls for an update. House Bill 331 also would create a volunteer advisory group to determine replacement names.

Similar measures have passed elsewhere across the U.S., though the federal government outlaws only two types of place names.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the interagency panel that approves all names on maps put out by federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service.

In 1963, it changed geographic names containing derogatory terms for black people, and in 1974 it changed all names containing a disparaging word for Japanese.

The board has strict rules about changing names, and on its website says it discourages name changes unless necessary.

The Montana bill expands on one that passed through the Legislature in 1999 to remove “squaw” from place names in the state. All 76 places in Montana with that word since have been changed, or a change is pending.

At least nine other states — Florida, Idaho, North Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Minnesota, Maine and Tennessee— also have removed the offensive word from place names or have passed legislation encouraging it.

The idea for the latest measure came out of work with members of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians on the Montana Indian Languages Preservation Pilot Program.

Gerald J. Gray Sr., director of the tribe’s native languages program, testified that as someone with a heritage that includes Chippewa, Cree, Blackfeet, French and Scottish, he has been referred to as a “dirty half-breed” throughout his life.

“I never told any non-Indians that I was an Indian or that I was ‘breed,’ as I knew I would be subjected to some snide or racist remarks, ostracized or made to feel I was out of place,” Gray said.

Halfbreed Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of 17 places throughout Montana with the word “half-breed” or “breed” in the name, according to Nicholas Vrooman, a historian who works with the Little Shell Tribe.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill Thursday.