Colorado is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America, but the beauty of some of these landscapes is diminished by a key flaw – their names.
Dozens of geographic features and places in Colorado contain racist and derogatory slurs in their official names. At least 27 places in the state include the word “squaw,” an offensive historical word for Indigenous women, in their names. At least 17 geographic features reference obsolete black terms, and some include explicit insults to Native Americans and Asian peoples.
Unfortunately, Colorado is not alone in names that refer to the ugly heritage that has been ruining its natural landscapes. According to the Washington Post, hundreds of geographical features on federal lands in the United States are named after terms we find offensive and derogatory.
Home Secretary Deb Haaland is urging his department to address the issue. In November 2021, Secretary Holland officially recognized the word “squaw” as a derogatory term for American Indians, banning its use on federal public lands and clearing the way for at least 650 locations across the country to remove the word from their official designation. Haaland also set up a task force tasked with examining the names of geographic and federal state units that include the word and other pejorative terms and make recommendations for their replacement.
These actions may seem small, but they are critical to ensuring that our public lands are safe, welcoming and accessible to all. In their latest 10-year survey, the National Park Service found that only 23% of park goers were people of color, yet we make up 42% of the US population. Names alone do not prevent people from visiting these outdoor spaces, but racist words and names that offend someone’s family, culture or heritage are in no way attractive or inclusive and can distort how people perceive public lands.
Racist, offensive and derogatory names clearly show the legacy we have celebrated on our public lands. It is a legacy of displacement, segregation and colonization. They suggest that we celebrate the dehumanization of Indigenous women or the discrimination against black Americans. Entry signs where these names appear may say “open”, but for many communities of color, they are more like “no entry” signs.
Revising and replacing derogatory names gives us the opportunity to tell the stories of the people who have called these landscapes home for generations. By finding names that better reflect the true nature of these places, nature can be more hospitable to everyone, allowing a new generation to develop a direct connection with nature.
Some may say that this move is an attempt to rewrite history, but there is a significant difference between discussing the legacy of historical figures and vilifying what it is. Moreover, this is not the first time the Interior Ministry has taken such measures. In 1962, Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall made the “n” word a pejorative insult and banned its use in place names on federal lands. In 1974, the Board on Geographic Names took a similar step, naming people of Japanese ancestry as a pejorative term.
And at the state level, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon passed laws prohibiting the use of the word “squaw” in place names. Congress is even considering passing a law on derogatory names of geographical features on public lands.
Going outside is a fundamental right and all people should be able to make direct connections with nature. This is not possible if we continue to use pejorative names for our geographic features. Spots have no place in our landscapes.
Christine “Chris” Hill is the Senior Director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America Campaign. She is the first black woman to lead the Sierra Club’s nature, land, water and wildlife campaign in its 129-year history. She has a background in law, community organizing and partnerships, and over a decade of experience working to protect communities and the natural world.
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