Removal of offensive "S word" from place names largely praised by Native people, but hard discussions remain
In September, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the removal of a word considered a slur for Native American women from nearly 650 federal sites.
The move is being mostly celebrated across Indian Country, though some have concerns along cultural and historical lines.
In a Washington Post column, Haaland describes how the word “squaw” has been used to persecute Native women for centuries. Its exact origin remains a subject of debate, but many believe it to have originated in the Northeast. Its meaning has been increasingly corrupted through racist dime-store Western novels and Hollywood movies.
Robert Kentta, Cultural Resources Director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, agrees with the DOI’s intent. But he told KLCC that the action has spurred debate among Native people, and their neighbors.
“While on one hand we support and applaud the intent of Secretary Haaland’s statement and position, it does create a burden on tribes, that sometimes is difficult to navigate all of the different situations that pop up as part of that effort,” said Kennta.
This includes people who want to keep the “s-word”, to preserve America’s racist past. And while some alternate names have worked out, some past efforts to rename geographic or geologic formations have resulted in names that aren’t entirely relevant, accurate, or culturally sensitive. Kennta recalled one group of non-Indians who attempted to rename a formation in the Pacific Northwest, who were astounded – and offended – when local tribes questioned the proposed moniker.
One thing Kentta recommends, is to bring tribes into the discussion, and appreciate that history and culture are complex.