To the northwest, Jarred-Michael Erickson can easily see Condon Mountain in the distance from his reservation’s government center in Eastern Washington. 

The chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Erickson will sometimes hike up the mountain. Travelers frequently use the dirt hunting roads that wind around base. Nespelem and Okanogan tribal members historically fished in the nearby creeks, streams and rivers.

Tribal members have called the mountain “Condon” for generations, Erickson said, in honor of a well-known family in the community. But for decades on federal maps and documents, the mountain bore the name “squaw,” a racist and sexist term used to describe Native American women.

That changed earlier this month, when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it would remove the slur from nearly 650 geographic features on federal lands. It was a change that was decades in the making and long overdue, Erickson said.

U.S. changes names of places with racist term for Native women

“We’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years, time immemorial, and finally we’re getting recognition for what we’ve always been calling them,” Erickson said. 

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The announcement was the culmination of yearslong — and in some cases decadeslong — efforts by tribal groups across the country to align the official federal names of geological features such as springs, lakes and creeks with the names used by Native residents.  

In Washington, the federal government renamed 19 sites.

A lake in Mount Rainier National Park will be called Kiya Lake. A pair of islands in Klickitat County on the Columbia River is now called Sq’wanana, which means “two sitting on lap” and refers to a legend in the Wishxam and Klickitat tribes. A spring in Garfield County has been renamed South Tucannon Spring. The name likely comes from a variation on the word “tukanin,” which refers to the Indian breadroot plant in titoqatímt, a dialect of Nez Perce. 

The origins of the original federal names for geological features vary. In Olympic National Park, for example, some places received their titles from explorers whose treks were sponsored by the Seattle Press newspaper between 1889-1890. 

But for other places, including one of the park’s creeks, the stories behind the federal names remain unknown.

The creek is in an area where important high-elevation medicinal plants were collected in the summer, according Lia Frenchman, the historic preservation technologist for the Quinault Indian Nation.

“It is possible that the expedition or other historic colonial-settler may have seen a Native American gathering,” Frenchman wrote in a renaming proposal to the state earlier this year.

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Quinault tribal members recommended renaming the creek “Noskeliikuu,” which means “the place where the whale dropped.” It’s a reference to an event witnessed by Quinault ancestors in the area, and a name used in oral histories for at least four generations, Frenchman wrote.

The Interior Department ultimately renamed the stream “Gathering Creek.” 

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland established the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force in November to remove and replace such terms across federal lands. The task force consulted with nearly 70 tribal governments for recommendations, and received more than 1,000 suggestions from the public. 

At the same time, Haaland formally declared the term for Native women derogatory, with the department later publishing the word as “sq___.” While the term may have derived from the Algonquian word for “woman,” the meaning morphed into a disparaging and offensive term. 

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a statement at the time. “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, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th-generation New Mexican, is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. Her appointment has been a “big reason” the federal government has finally acted to remove offensive terms from place names, Erickson said. 

Deb Haaland confirmed as interior secretary, becoming the first Native American U.S. Cabinet member (March 2021)

It could be a sign of growing momentum toward better acknowledging Indigenous lands and histories, Erickson said. In Washington, he hopes to see the bilingual signs on highway markers statewide that include place names in Native languages. 

“I think that would be huge,” Erickson said. “We’re going back to what they’ve always been called [by Indigenous communities.] Then people get used to the language. Once they say it, they use it. It’s just relearning, relearning for non-Native Americans.”