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The giving spirit of reconciliation of place names

The Ceremonial Rock Trail at the Sue-meg State Park. Photo by Taryn Abarta, April 7th 2022
The Ceremonial Rock Trail at the Sue-meg State Park. Photo by Taryn Abarta, April 7th 2022

Whether it be statues with Indigenous names, or creating committees to comb through place names, there have been many moves this year to get rid of derogatory language.

Last month, the Department of the Interior announced successful efforts to remove a racial slur used against Indigenous people from almost 650 geographic features. And the committee’s work isn’t over.

On December 7th and 8th, theAdvisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names met for the first time. Secretary Deb Haaland hopes the committee can accelerate a critical process to eliminate derogatory place names.

In this meeting the committee explored what the term "Derogatory" means, creating subcommittees, and detailing future plans.

There was a back and forth about how "Derogatory" should be defined.

Federico Mosqueda, Coordinator of the Arapaho Language and Culture Program called for a thoughtful and careful process.

He said "We as a committee, need to challenge this definition. With some of the names coming up, I think what we need to do is take the names we consider derogatory to us and challenge the name using their definition of"

He says this is important to push the point home by using experience and emotion to express the inappropriate nature of these place names and their hurtful histories.

The two options for the term "derogatory" were the following:

  1. In the context of the work of the Committee, the term “derogatory” will mean a disparaging or pejorative term used to label a group of people by race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other arbitrary characteristics, in a disrespectful way and demeaning manner.
  2. The same as the first option, with the expansion of generalization of terminology instead of naming every option.

The proposed subcommittees: The federal land unit names, the geographic feature names, and the processes and principles.
Howard Dale Valandra, member of the committee and works with Tribal Land Enterprise Board of Directors (Rosebud Sioux Tribe)

Valandra said "This is not a pickup game where we stand on the side and say 'Hey you can come play on this team' this is 'I wanna be on that team and I'm gonna go over there and play'"

The options for the subcommittees are the following:

  1. Federal land unit names subcommittee: Examples of derogatory and potentially derogatory names for federal lands.
  2. Geographic feature names the subcommittee: Examines derogatory and potentially derogatory names for geographic features (e.g. mountains or streams) on all lands within the U.S.
  3. Processes and principles subcommittee: Helps refine definitions/terms in support of the other subcommittees as needed; develops recommendations to improve existing federal naming/renaming processes.

He says the committee needs to decide if the three subcommittees need to be there and to think about how much time it takes to be a member of those subcommittees.
The subcommittee's main job would gauge community voices.

Joshua Winchell, Staff Director of the National Park System Advisory Board was at the committee.

Winchell said, "I already have in hand... a list of all departments of interior and forest service land unit names... at least in federal lands unit names committee, there is a list almost ready to go provide to that to that subcommittee if the committee decides to establish it."

Winchell says that the subcommittees will be creating broad recommendations for the committee to decide on.

Winchell says it is important to have the three subcommittees because they deal with different methods.

He said "For instance, we renamed a state park Sue-meg Yurok name, last year, and even after the park and recreation commission acted on that it had to go to the federal government"

The general public will be able to provide input and engage with the committee's discussion by making written comments and attending virtual meetings.

To read the full transcript of the advisory meeting, you may have to wait up to 90 days for it to be completely transcribed, you can find it on the Committee's website.

—Edited for clarity & spacing error

Hannah Bissett is a Dena'ina woman who is currently enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hannah is pursuing an International Studies degree and is president of two student organizations on campus.