How much will a name change change?

By Tim Lydon

It was late November in Alaska and a lousy day for deer hunting. Rough seas rocked our small boat, and when we finally stumbled ashore in Squaw Bay, we found another hunter already there. He glanced at us unhappily, then walked toward the best deer habitat. With just six hours of daylight left, all we could do was sit, watching and thinking.

A week earlier, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had ordered her department to remove the derogatory word “squaw” from any place names on federal lands. It means new names are coming for this bay and over 600 other features on public lands across the country.

A year earlier, while working with a local nonprofit, I moderated a Facebook group page about the popular national forest surrounding the bay. The page is a place to trade stories and information. One morning my friend Dave, a local charter boat captain, posted a picture from the bay and commented, “nice place for a name change.” This was before the Biden administration, and Dave was only musing.

Name changes are not uncommon here. In recent years, streets, mountains, and a whole city have adopted Alaska Native names. And in 2015, as he prepared to visit Alaska, then-President Obama issued a famous – and popular – order renaming the state’s highest peak from McKinley to Denali, a nod to the Athabaskan people who have lived here for millennia.

I didn’t think anything of Dave’s comment, but when I checked back later, I saw he’d been dog-piled. Scores of people, mostly men, puffed up their online chests and hurled insults. They cursed, called him a snowflake or far worse, and lamented Alaska’s descent into “wokeness.”

I think I was a weak moderator. I deleted some abusive comments, kicked out a few people, and politely called for civility. But later, when Dave read the comments, he deleted his post and left the group. With that, our page lost a great source of local history and science.

There’s a lot to untangle from this little squall in Alaska’s remote corner of the Internet, including the tenor of today’s culture wars, which normalizes bullying.

Then there’s the word itself. Some commenters schooled Dave on etymology, citing a popular theory that squaw evolved from an Algonquin term meaning “woman.” But it was a selective take. No one mentioned that for centuries the Americanized usage was contemptuous and dehumanizing.

Like any racist slur, the term still causes pain and fuels bias. These things matter, especially when we consider the violence disproportionately inflicted against Indigenous women and girls, an issue still unfamiliar to many. In recent years, tribes, states, and others have identified thousands of unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls and shown that a mix of bias and jurisdictional issues on tribal lands feeds a disparity in justice.

In response, many Western states, including New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, and Washington have assigned task forces or taken other actions. Congress and both the Biden and Trump administrations have also acted with the 2020 Savannah Act, which improves Justice Department coordination on the issue, and the creation of a new Bureau of Indian Affairs unit for such crimes.

Haaland’s name-change order skips past these specifics and simply states that squaw is a racist term. But she does remind the public of the federal government’s long-standing efforts to wipe racial slurs from place names. In 1962, for instance, efforts began to remove a racist term for African American people. In 1974, the same occurred for a slur against Japanese people that originated in the World War II internment era. And beginning in 1999, state laws in Montana, Oregon, and elsewhere outlawed squaw from place names.

It reveals decades of bipartisan work to remove names that alienate subsets of Americans from their public lands. That long view would have been handy on our Facebook page, where many disparaged Dave’s comment as politically correct faddishness.

Ultimately, a name change won’t solve bigger issues. But at over 600 sites, it will stop a slur and prompt a dialog that’s overdue. That’s true for my local bay too. But even with a new name, it will still be a serene place surrounded by forest and snow-clad mountains, where in late fall you can stand around all day and never see a deer.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He writes from Alaska.

View of Kenai Mountains, not far from the former Squaw Bay

This column was published in the following newspapers:

05/09/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
05/09/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
05/09/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
05/10/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
05/09/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
05/11/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
05/11/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
05/12/2022 Limon Leader Limon CO
05/10/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
05/10/2022 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
05/10/2022 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
05/10/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
05/12/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
05/15/2022 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
05/17/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
05/17/2022 Missoulian Missoula Montana
05/17/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
05/22/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
05/12/2022 Taos News Taos NM
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Gretchen King
4 months ago

While I appreciate the sentiments, it’s too bad that Tim repeats the racist slur six times in this op-ed. Now seven outlets have done the same. Consider revising these to “sq***” out of consideration for the harm the term does (as noted by the author himself).

Dave Marston
4 months ago
Reply to  Gretchen King

Gretchen King works for High Country News. Writers on the Range is an independent nonprofit, completely separate from HCN. Our editor chose not to use that sort of signaling.

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