In the 21st century, it shouldn’t take a federal task force — and the country’s first Native American Cabinet member — to rid the U.S. landscape of racist and offensive place names.
Yet, Maine’s experience with offensive names, more than 40 years after the Legislature pledged to remove offensive names here, is illustrative of the work that remains to be done.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, announced that she had ordered a federal panel charged with overseeing place names to formalize a process for removing offensive and derogatory place names from federal properties.
The work will begin with the removal of an offensive term for Indigenous women from about 650 locations across the country, according to figures from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
An advisory committee will also be created to collect, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal place names. That panel will be made up of tribal representatives and civil rights, anthropology and history experts.
“Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s actions will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names and mark a significant step in honoring the ancestors who have stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Board on Geographic Names took action to eliminate the use of derogatory terms for Black and Japanese people.
A more thorough and holistic review of inappropriate names is overdue.
Maine has undertaken two formal efforts to rid the state of offensive place names, including the derogatory name for Indigenous women.
Such names have been illegal in Maine since 1979, after a state law was passed to remove offensive names from places that are under state jurisdiction. The law initially focused on an offensive word for Black people. The statute was amended in 2000 to ban the offensive term for Indigeous women.
Despite the prohibitions, offensive place names persist in Maine. Last year, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry renamed five coastal islands that included offensive words in their names. The town of Castine is currently working to change the offensive names of two islands there.
The owner of a ski area near Greenville refused to change the name of his property although the state years ago renamed the mountain it is on to Big Moose Mountain.
Maine lawmakers earlier this year passed a law directing the department to more thoroughly review place names to ensure that any remaining offensive names are removed and to update the list of offensive names.
It also directs the department to “explore the most effective methods of identifying the individuals, entities and institutions in the State that profited or benefited in any manner from the global economy of enslavement.”
A report is due on Dec. 1.
“The continued use of offensive language in place names within our state sends a clear message to entire groups of people that they are not welcome or valued here. It is critical that we work together to ensure these harmful messages have no place in our beautiful state,” Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, the bill’s sponsor, told lawmakers in May. Her father, Gerald Talbot, then a state representative from Portland, sponsored the original offensive name legislation in 1976.
As we’ve suggested with efforts to rename military bases that are currently named after Confederate generals, there are plenty of heroes that could be honored instead. Naming places after geographical features, of course, is a good option, too.
In 2008, the Board on Geographic Names voted to change the offensive name of a mountain near Phoenix to Piestewa Peak to honor Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.
Changing derogatory place names, in theory, is easy. But it takes a willingness to listen and sustained attention to get it done.