Recently, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland started a task force to address derogatory place names on federal lands. This task force will recommend new names for places such as Squaw Canyon and Squaw Flat in Canyonlands National Park and Squaw Creek in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “Squaw” is an insult used to demean Native American women, but the term is pervasive: there are 660 places on federally managed public lands whose names use this slur.
The decision comes as momentum surges nationwide to change derogatory place names. Over the past 20 years, people have proposed replacement names for 261 places containing squaw to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), the body responsible for considering such proposed changes. Several states, including Minnesota, Maine and Montana, have established laws eliminating that word from place names. Near where I live in Pittsburgh, a township council voted in 2020 to rename a local park to get rid of the s-word.
Our public lands have many kinds of unjust place names. For example, the Oglala Lakota successfully changed the name of a sacred mountain in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota from Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak in 2016. William Harney was a U.S. Army general who, in 1855, led his troops to massacre a band of Lakota, including women and children, and mutilate their bodies. Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota holy man and visionary. Removing the name of a man who tried to exterminate the Lakota and replacing it with the name of Black Elk on the Lakota’s sacred mountain is a step toward reconciliation and restorative justice.
It is stories such as that of Black Elk Peak that led my colleagues and me to wonder about unjust place names. I’m a scientist specializing in ecology and led a team of conservation scientists and scholars who wanted to know just how many places have derogatory and other problematic names in some of our nation’s most beloved conservation landscapes: our national parks.
Visitors revere the parks, which have been called “America’s best idea,” for their majestic landscapes and wildlife. But in addition, a lot of ecology and conservation research goes on in national parks. As field scientists, we use place names regularly. I am a descendant of colonizers and settlers of the U.S., so this project was a chance for me to better understand how my ability to conduct research on public lands benefits from the forced removal of Native American peoples from their lands and how things like place names can uphold but also disrupt systems of oppression.
Our study, recently published in People and Nature, showed that, within the 16 parks we studied, 21 places were named for proponents of racism. We were surprised that 52 places were named for settlers who were involved in known acts of racial violence and genocide, often against Indigenous peoples, including a river in Everglades National Park named after the same Harney.
Native Americans have called for changing place names at national parks and monuments for more than a century. Our study is one of the first system-wide analyses of what place names might need changing. We wondered, “Are these efforts to change problematic place names happening in isolation, or is there a system-wide pattern in need of a system-wide response?” We found the latter: All 16 parks we examined had one or more places named after people who supported racist ideologies (six parks), capitalized on Indigenous removal and colonization (16 parks) and/or participated in acts of genocide (15 parks). Furthermore, of the place names on park visitor maps, very few (15 percent), on average, are traditional or even appropriated Indigenous place names, while the majority (79 percent) are settler colonizer place names. The fact that we found these patterns consistently in parks ranging from Acadia to Yosemite and Cuyahoga Valley to Canyonlands demonstrates that these problems are not isolated incidences; they are manifesting similarly across the park system.
The predominance of European American place names erases the histories of the Indigenous peoples who were here for millennia before colonizers forced them off their lands. Indeed, researchers have found that the largest barrier to public support for Native American rights in the U.S. is their invisibility and erasure in modern society.
Place names perpetuate this erasure, generation after generation, but we can disrupt the cycle. Restoring Indigenous place names restores mnemonic and spiritual connections among place, culture and ancestral knowledge. For example, President William McKinley had no ties to the Alaskan mountain formerly named after him. Under President McKinley, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Filipinos revolted, and the war McKinley waged against them claimed the lives of about 5,000 Americans and 200,000 Filipinos.
This was the namesake for our continent’s tallest mountain.
Denali, the mountain’s federally recognized name since 2015, is a Koyukon word that meaning “the tall one” that has been in use for 10,000 to 12,000 years by many Athabascan peoples, an Alaska Native group. To them, using the name Denali is a way of honoring the land. Restoring Indigenous place names can empower and support the revitalization of Indigenous languages and knowledge.
The public comment period for the current federal task force is open now and ends on April 25. But the work that the federal government will do is only a portion of what we need to accomplish to reconcile the violent origins of our nation with the restorative nature of the places that bear these names. As a nation that aspires to be equitable and just, we can work toward changing problematic place names for state-managed and locally managed lands like that park near Pittsburgh. Descendants of settlers can collaborate as allies with Indigenous individuals and communities to find replacements that are traditional Indigenous names like Denali or new ones like Black Elk Peak. Place names can teach us of the deeper histories of the places we live, work and play.
Changing place names is not about some people being offended or feelings being hurt; it’s about telling a more complete history of North America and the U.S., respecting Indigenous knowledge and acknowledging the sovereignty of Native American nations. For conserving our public lands, people, history and culture are just as important as ecology.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.