BRADLEY, Mich. (WOOD) — The Department of the Interior has approved a measure to remove a word that is derogatory toward Native American women from more than 600 geographic entities across the country, including 32 in Michigan.
The term — squaw — is a considered an offensive slur by many Native American communities. DOI Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to hold the position, called the decision a culmination of a yearlong process aimed at improving inclusivity.
“Words matter, particularly in our work to ensure our nation’s public lands and water are accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds,” Haaland said in a statement. “I am grateful to the members of the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force and the Board on Geographic Names for their efforts to finalize the removal of this harmful word. Together, we are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”
The changes affect five entities in West Michigan. Squaw Lake north of Sparta will now be known as Rogue Lake. Squaw Lake and Squaw Creek Lake southwest of Marshall will now be known as East Cedar Lake and Little Cedar Lake, respectively. Squaw Brook in southeast Barry County will now be known as Odawa Brook.
It’s a little more personal for members of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi, better known as the Gun Lake Tribe. Squaw Lake, now known as Rabbit Lake, sits just a couple of miles away from the tribe’s main campus in Allegan County.
Tribal council member Phyllis Davis had a simple response to the DOI’s decision: “It’s time.”
“It’s offensive. It’s a racist remark. It’s sexist. And as an Indian woman, a mother, a sister, an auntie, a grandmother, I find it offensive that in this day and age we would want to perpetuate a word that has a really negative overtone,” Davis told News 8.
Merriam-Webster says the term was first used in the 17th century as a label for a Native American woman. Davis says it’s not the word itself that makes it offensive but rather that it was applied to them by colonizers.
“European settlers, when they came into the area when the immigrated over to America, (the term) was used as a derogatory word regarding the women that were here on this continent. And these women already had names,” Davis said. “At that time, Christian beliefs were that Indian people, Indigenous people were not human. And I think this was a way of dehumanizing people.”
The DOI’s decision to change names to remove terms that are now understood as derogatory is not new. The department took action in 1962 to remove the N-word and another outdated term for people who are Black from all federal land names. The department decided to remove a “pejorative term” for a Japanese person in 1974.
“I don’t see anything wrong with revisiting and look at ways that we can come together,” Davis said. “No matter what color we are, what creed, what race, that we find ways to be humans together.”
The task force was pointed toward more than 1,000 names during public comment and took input from local historians and tribal leaders across the country to determine the new names.
Davis believes the new name for Rabbit Lake was likely chosen because it connects to Rabbit River, one of several that share the name and wind through West Michigan.