What’s In a Name?

Have you ever been traveling, or reading a map, and found a place name that really stands out? Like Dead Injun Creek in Oregon or the Wetback Tank reservoir in New Mexico? There are some weird place names in this country, and as times change, they can be considered embarrassing or downright offensive to contemporary ears. So what can be done?

Changing offensive names is the job of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) in the Department of the Interior (https://www.usgs.gov/us-board-on-geographic-names). Created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947, its job is “to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.” The BGN includes representatives from any Federal agency concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and the management of public lands.

Normally this is one of those federal agencies that works behind the scenes. But the current national debates over racism and language have made the board’s work more public, especially considering there are still hundreds of place names that include terms like “Negro” that are now considered offensive. Reconsidering such names now takes up more of the board’s time than anything else. But if you’re concerned about government overreach, the process usually takes months with names considered case by case upon request, and any new name must have a logical rationale.

There is one exception — Since 1947 the interior secretary has had the power to change names without the BGN’s involvement, but that has been used only once; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell changed the name of the nation’s highest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali in 2015. And a different, faster process is possible. Currently, the board’s website has the following announcement–

In response to the Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3404 - Declaring “Squaw” a Derogatory Term and Implementing Procedures to Remove the Term from Federal Usage, and Secretarial Order 3405 - Addressing Derogatory Geographic Names, the BGN’s consideration of certain geographic name changes is being amended.

This is the result of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American in that job, recently issuing an order to take any mention of “Squaw,” one of the most frequently used slurs in place names, literally off the map.

 Still, the BGN can’t force people to use a new name. So if you’re traveling and see a name that sounds out of place or offensive, don’t blame the board.

Also see “How to Rename a Place” by David A. Graham (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/renaming-racist-places-board-on-geographic-names/621342/?)

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