We are geoscientists. We have dedicated our lives to studying the Earth, its natural processes and its features. Our days are spent poring over maps, trekking out to ice sheets, mountains and coral reefs, and using satellites to gain some insight into what the Earth is doing around us.
We are also women of color. This defines much of our experience in the world. In many situations, we carry burdens that many of our peers do not. But when it is just us and the Earth, we can put down some of those burdens and focus on being a scientist. We can comb through satellite data, hike to collect samples, and chart out new field sites on maps.
And then, on those maps, we find the n-word.
We do a double take, because how could a racial slur be on these maps? But there it is.
We pick back up those burdens and do some research to see if this is a mistake, but it is not. These were the official, government-approved names of these land features. Those are the land features we are supposed to study. Those slurs are talking about us.
By some estimates, there are more than 1,400 geographic features in the United States still have official names that contain racial slurs and racist terminology. These names are not accidents. They were intentionally placed many years ago to signal to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian communities: you are not welcome here. The fact that these names have persisted is not an accident either. Some people do not recognize the harm that these names can have, some come across these names with surprise but choose to move on, and others actively fight to uphold this racist legacy. We cannot have a just society when racist names are officially sanctioned. We cannot ask for more diversity in the geoscience community and then put geoscientists of color in the situation of confronting this language in their daily work. We need a national, multifaceted push to change any instances of racial slurs and racist terminology in our natural land features.
Many of these features were named by locals decades or even centuries ago, based on the history of the town or even simply the fact that people of color existed in proximity to the town. Chinaman Trail in New Mexico was likely named such because Chinese laborers constructed the original trail as part of mining operations. A peak in the Mojave Desert in California is to this day named Pickaninny Buttes, likely because African Americans settled in that region. N*** Lake in Illinois was likely named as such simply because a Black man owned a grocery store nearby (and as recently as 1993, locals still referred to this lake by this original, racist, name). There are numerous instances of the name Squaw Tit(s) used across the country (denigrating the very peoples to whom the land originally belonged, and in many cases still belongs). It doesn’t take much digging to recognize that these names were chosen explicitly to tell people of color that they are not welcome or respected.
These are only a few instances of a problem that spans the country, and attempts have been made here and there for the last few decades to change some of these names. Grandstaff Canyon in Utah, named after William (Bill) Grandstaff, was officially called N*** Bill Canyon until around the 1960s, when the secretary of the interior at the time declared that the n-word be eliminated from all geographic features and all maps to be altered accordingly. In response, most features had the n-word changed to the word “Negro,” another racially offensive term. Grandstaff Canyon’s name was changed to “Negro Bill Canyon” in the 1960s and remained that way until 2017, when the name was finally changed.
Most attempts to change these names have been less successful. Many petitions to change racist place names have been denied, with some saying that the name isn’t offensive (as declared by the Board of Supervisors in Nevada County when requested to change the name of “Negro Creek”), and others insisting that changing the name would be erasing history. We have entered 2021 with possibly more than 1,400 racist place names on public lands across the country, making public lands less available to communities of color and, in some instances, actively hurtful for the communities that live near them.
The current system at the government level for changing the names is inefficient and decentralized, dependent upon individuals calling out names and higher authorities deeming those names sufficiently racist. A bill introduced by then Representatives Deb Haaland and Al Green in late 2020,, H.R. 8455, would create a committee and a formal governmental process to identify and change racist place names. If passed, this would be a huge step towards erasing these offensive names.
But there must be action from geoscientists and geoscience organizations as well. These names have persisted for decades. For decades, geologists, geophysicists and paleoclimatologists have encountered these racist names on maps and done fieldwork at these land features, and yet we know of no coordinated, systematic action that has been taken in response. The Department of the Interior and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have for years had the power to make changes. Large geoscience organizations like the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Geological Society of America (GSA) have had the influence to push for name changes, to ensure that future generations of geoscientists of color would not have to confront racism during their work. Collectively, American institutions have not done enough to remove these names from public lands at the national level. It is past time for geoscience organizations, academic departments, companies and individuals to use their collective influence to help erase these names from the landscape, maps, and scientific publication record.
So here we are, advocating for ourselves. We call on geoscience organizations to do better than they have in the past and actively push for name changes, such as by supporting H.R. 8455. We have launched an open letter campaign, and we invite anyone to sign as a means of voicing support for the bill and for geoscience organizations to take action. We further call on geoscience publications and organizations to develop protocols for addressing the presence of these names in old and new maps, scientific publications, and conference presentations. A concerted effort from a congressional bill, large geoscience organizations and individual geoscientists together can make a huge difference.
All four authors are co-founders of the H.R. 8455 Campaign.
This is an opinion and analysis article.