Skip to content

The politics of the slow pendulum of change


A few years ago, I wrote a column for Our Weekly that decried the then-current usage of racist and misogynistic place names for a significant number of mountains, streams, hills, valleys and other places in this country, including in California.

Contemporarily, names like Dead Negro Hollow, Tenn., Wetback Tank, N.M., and Dead Injun Creek, Ore. are still far too plentiful in this country’s topographical identifications.

During Barack Obama’s term, he started the process of trying to clean that American anomaly up. However, when he left office, the task was far from complete and not continued by his successor.

Currently, at last count, there are yet over 1,441 racist and/or sexist names still recognized in American mapmaking, parks and tourist areas. For example, still existing is Pickaninny Hills in San Bernardino County, and just recently (2021), after years and months of complaints and protests, the former Olympic ski resort, Squaw Valley, Calif. near Lake Tahoe, finally agreed to change its name. It is now to be called Palisades Tahoe, but that name has not yet caught on. Additionally, after a century or so, Squaw Tits Mountains just received a name change in California, to the Thimble Mountains.

Geographic places carelessly saddled with derogatory names exist in every state, though current data show that the largest clusters of such names in the U.S. are still in the West and the South.

Our state, California, has at least 159 such place names that are disrespectful and offensive to either Native Americans, African-Americans, the Chinese, Italians or some combination of them all. The king of the hill for racist topography, though, is still Arizona with a true hornet’s nest of racist place names in its armory.

Part of the reason for the recent pressure to get rid of such anachronisms was the national focus on this and other issues growing from the George Floyd murder and trial. The other strong reason is the presence of the new federal Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a former congresswoman and the first such federal official who is still an active member of a Native American tribal group.

In November 2021, this new Secretary of the Interior formally established a new process that would review and replace derogatory names used in any federal governmental publication to identify the nation’s geographic features. She also declared “squaw” to be a derogatory term that had to be eliminated wherever it was found in federal land descriptions and ordered the federal Board on Geographic Names — the federal body in charge of naming geographic places — to implement the appropriate procedures necessary to remove the term forever from federal usage.

In California recently, two California lawmakers, in Assembly Bill 2022, have proposed removing the word “squaw,” a slur against Native American women, from all geographic features and place names in the state. Introduced by Assemblyman James Ramos (D-Highland) and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the ban is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

Ramos said the word “squaw” “is an idiom that came into use during the westward expansion of America, and is not and has never been, a tribal word.”

“AB 2022 would ban the use of the S-word and establish a process for renaming locations with that offensive racial and sexist term which began as a derogatory word used against Native American women. For decades, Native Americans have argued against the designation’s use because behind that expression is the disparagement of Native women that contributes to the crisis of missing and murdered people in our community,” Ramos said in a statement when he publicly announced the bill.

He also added that as of 2021-22, more than 100 locations in California still contained the squaw word as part of their name and would be forced to change once his assembly bill passed.

Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on the state legislation to ban “nig*er” and “nig*a” from state designations.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

DISCLAIMER: The beliefs and viewpoints expressed in opinion pieces, letters to the editor, by columnists and/or contributing writers are not necessarily those of OurWeekly.