Haaland to remove racist terms from federal lands, including 31 in Michigan

By: - December 1, 2021 3:52 pm

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Updated, 6:50 p.m., 12/6/21, with additional comments from tribal leaders

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has formally ordered the removal of the term “squaw” from federal geographic features, including 31 in Michigan alone, marking a step forward to reconcile place names that are now widely understood as offensive toward Indigenous people.

Historically, “squaw” has been used as a racist, sexist and ethnic slur for Indigenous women. The term appears in the names of 13 lakes, 10 streams, three canals, two islands, one cape, one bay and one beach in Michigan.

“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,” Haaland said in a statement on Nov. 19.

Haaland is the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary.

With secretarial orders 3404 and 3405, Haaland formally identifies the term “squaw” as derogatory, creates a federal task force to find replacement names for the areas and creates a Federal Advisory Committee to solicit, review and recommend changes to land unit names.

Haaland says removing the slur from the nation’s geographic features and land units will help to “[honor] the ancestors who have stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”

According to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names, there are 666 federal land units that contain the term.

In Michigan, the 31 areas with the name are located across 22 counties, including six in the U.P. and 16 in the Lower Peninsula.

“It is a long time coming and took an American Indian woman, our first Cabinet Member for the Federal Government, to get it right,” Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said on Wednesday.

It is a long time coming and took an American Indian woman, our first Cabinet Member for the Federal Government, to get it right.

– Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

“It is not a matter of political correctness but a matter of dignity. What other race is subjected to the exploitation of the use of such derogatory names?” Payment continued.

“I applaud the efforts of Secretary Haaland to formally established a process to review and replace derogatory names used to identify federal lands and geographic features,” said Rebecca Richards, chairperson of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. “Our Pokagon Band Tribal Council recognizes that the use of Native American/Indian mascots, native-themed imagery, symbolism, logos, and nicknames throughout the United States has a determinantal effect on Native Americans and promotes harmful stereotypes.”*

With the secretarial orders, the Board on Geographic Names has been ordered to implement procedures to remove the term from federal usage. That process will be expedited and coordinated with the newly established federal advisory committee, as name changes with the board usually go through a lengthy process.

That Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will have representation from tribes, tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, civil rights, anthropology and history experts, along with members of the general public, Haaland’s press release states.

Several states like Oregon, Maine, Montana and Minnesota legislatively prohibit the use of the word “squaw” in place names; Michigan does not.

Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) Chairperson Whitney Gravelle said that growing up as a Native woman, she will never forget having the term “squaw” being weaponized against her “to insult my identity, appearance, and sense of being.”

“Changing these derogatory names is an opportunity to honor and remember the true history of the land that we reside on here in the State of Michigan,” Gravelle continued. “Tribal Nations and indigenous people should be involved in, if not in charge altogether, in the renaming of these areas, as there are words in our language that not only describe the land as it is, but also honor a culture, history, and relationship with the land that our people have maintained for centuries.”

Gravelle notes that the Anishinaabemowin language is already woven into Michigan’s identity in many ways; from the name “Michigan” being derived from “Michigami” (“great lake”), to “Mackinac” (“turtle”) and “Ishpeming” (“above the sky”), among many others.

“I hope the State of Michigan follows the Department of Interior’s actions to remove derogatory names, as there are names within the State’s control that need to be changed as well. I also hope people are not intimidated learning to pronounce Anishinabemowin/Ojibwe words because they’ve already got a great head start knowing how to say ‘Michigan,'” Gravelle said.*

The federal task force created by Haaland’s first secretarial order — formally known as the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force — is required to be established by or before Dec. 19. It must engage in tribal and public consultation on proposed name changes. 

Since 1947, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has had joint authority with the Board on Geographic Names and has final approval or review of the board’s actions.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).