US ban ‘offensive geographical names’ like Sambo Creek and Squaw Mountain

We can't have a Dead Indian mountain anymore

Native Americans and other people of color are successfully battling racist geographical names in the United States – from Sambo Creek and Chinaman Gulch to Dead Indian Mountain.

For over 150 years, the 3,500-metre-high mountain west of Denver, Colorado was known as Squaw Mountain. Since last week he has been called Mestaa’ehe Mountain, after a Cheyenne female interpreter and mediator, usually called Owl Woman. In 19th-century Colorado, these women propagated peaceful relations between indigenous tribes and the advancing white settlers.

The name change was officially finalized last week by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, as a first’offensive geographic name ‘that the state of Colorado wanted to modify. Squaw is an Algonquin word that once simply meant ‘woman’, but became common in the colonial Wild West as a condescending designation for Indigenous women, with sexual connotations.

Wrong names

Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first member of the United States Government of Indigenous descent ever, described the term ‘squaw’ as offensive and racist last month. Earlier, she announced steps to eliminate these kinds of geographical names altogether in areas where the federal government rules. Throughout the United States, hundreds of names have been nominated to disappear.

Support for changing bad names gained strength even before Haaland took office, partly under the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. More and more people want to get rid of names, images and symbols that refer to a history of colonial oppression of natives and other ‘people of color’.

The indigenous peoples of Colorado were satisfied last week with the official name change of Squaw Mountain. Teanna Limpy of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Historic Preservation Office told news agency AP: ‘an insulting name intended to weaken the sacral power of our women has disappeared. Mestaa’ehe will shine on her mountain for generations to come and be an inspiration to us all.’

In other states, committees with bad names have also been set up. In California, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe, something local indigenous groups had been asking for for decades. The resort is located in Olympic Valley, until the 1960 Winter Olympics called Squaw Valley. In the state of Arizona, Mount Squaw Tits was renamed Isanaklesh Peaks after an Apache goddess.

It’s not just geographical names that are offensive to Native Americans, like Dead Indian Mountain in Oregon. Black and Asian Americans can also take offense at derogatory names on the map such as Sambo Creek in Pennsylvania, Mulatto Run in Virginia, or Chinaman Gulch in Colorado. The new names are often based on old Indigenous names. After all, the Indians got there first.

In Colorado there are many more names on the roll. Such as Mount Evans, named after John Evans, governor of the State at the time of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. There, despite a truce, the US Army attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho camps. More than 230 women, children and the elderly were slaughtered. Evans, who constantly acted against ‘hostile Indians’, had to resign.

Otto Braided Hair, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, lost some ancestors in the massacre and wants the name Mount Evans to disappear. ‘That name is an insult to my people, ” he told The Washington Post. “It constantly reminds my family and those of other descendants of survivors of the massacre that the crime of Sand Creek is in a sense condoned by the people of Colorado and the nation.’

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