Federal Government Erases Derogatory Place Names

The announcement Thursday concludes a year-long process to replace nearly 650 locations with names involving a racist term for Native American women, including two in the Flathead

By Micah Drew
Formerly Squaw Meadow and Squaw Meadow Creek, pictured in an 2001 road atlas map north of Marion, may soon be renamed Lefthand Creek and Lefthand Meadow. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced Thursday that hundreds of federally recognized geographic locations around the country bearing a derogatory term for Native American women had been officially renamed, including two Flathead Valley landmarks.

The changing of nearly 650 names of peaks, lakes, streams and other geographical features on federal land was the culmination of a nearly year-long process that began when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, took office in 2021. Declaring the word “squaw” derogatory, Haaland — whose agency refers to the term in written statements as “sq___” — convened a “Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force” to remove the term from the federal vernacular.

“I feel a deep obligation to use my platform to ensure that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming. That starts with removing racist and derogatory names that have graced federal locations for far too long,” Haaland wrote in a statement. “I am grateful to the members of the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force and the Board on Geographic Names for their efforts to prioritize this important work. Together, we are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”

The Board of Geographic Names (BGN), the federal entity that bears the responsibility for decreeing official place names, was charged with developing a comprehensive list of locations and a list of replacement names after consulting with local governments, tribes and allowing the public to comment on the replacements.

A U.S. Geological Survey website map showing locations of renamed geological features.

While locations with the racist term are found nationwide, the heaviest concentration is on federal land in the western U.S., with Montana as an exception, requiring only two replacements.

That’s because in 1999, Montana became the second state to enact legislation to remove the offensive word from state landmarks, but after 23 years a pair of Flathead County locations still carried the slur on maps

Both Squaw Meadows and the adjacent Squaw Meadows Creek lie just west of Griffin Creek Road north of Marion in the Flathead National Forest. The names were officially published in 1981 and remained unchanged despite the statewide push to eradicate the term. Proposals to rename the two features written up but Gerry Daumiller, who served as the geographic names advisor with the Montana State Library from 2009 and 2016, said between a communication breakdown, his retirement and a lengthy bureaucratic process, the changes never made it to BGN.

In December 2021, Daumiller submitted proposals to rename the two features as “Lefthand Creek” and “Lefthand Meadow,” following recommendations by Daniel Stiffarm, the former director of the Kootenai Culture Committee (KCC). The names honor siblings Basil, Mary and Alex Lefthand who were known for their cultural knowledge of the Little Bitterroot region. Stiffarm wrote that the names would recognize “efforts to continue teaching Kootenai Culture, language preservation, Treaty Rights and Tribal Government.” 

In a press release, the DOI said that more than 1,000 name recommendations had been received for the sites, including five each for those in Montana, in addition to several hundred that stemmed from nation-to-nation consultation with more than 70 tribal governments. “Lefthand Creek” and “Lefthand Meadow” were selected as the new names for Flathead County’s sites.

Another DOI task force, the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names, is expected to announce its next steps soon, after members were announced last month. The Committee, which will “broadly solicit, review and recommend changes to derogatory geographic and federal land unit names,” includes Lauren Monroe Jr., vice-chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

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