Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


March 22, 2007

Wiping 'Squaw' off the Map

Is the word 'squaw' a sexual epithet? Can and should it be scrubbed from the country's geographic landforms like 'nigger' and 'jap' before it? Gelf investigates.

Hadley Robinson

Many Native American groups have been trying to eradicate the word "squaw" from more than 800 American geographic landforms. That's because, under certain interpretations, the term is a sexual epithet. "It's a French perversion of the word that is vagina," Wendy Kelleher, an instructor of English at Arizona State who conducted a study on Phoenix's change of the name of Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak, tells Gelf. "If you called it Cunt Mountain, it would be pejoratively the same."

The etymology of the word is debatable, and many strongly disagree with the notion that "squaw" is an insulting word. According to, the word "squa" first appeared in American vocabulary in 1634 and came from an Algonquin word meaning simply "woman." But others believe that "squaw" is derived from the Mohawk word "ojiskwa," meaning vagina.

USGS map of Squaw Peak in Sunnyside, Arizona. Courtesy Mark Monmonier.
"The problem with the word 'squaw' is there is no one word that it could be changed to."—Lou Yost, executive secretary, US Board of Geographic Names

USGS map of Squaw Peak in Sunnyside, Arizona. Courtesy Mark Monmonier.

Even if the word's origins are found to be well-intentioned, getting rid of a term that is so offensive to some Americans seems like a legitimate request. But there are several hurdles to clear.

To change just one landmark, requests are made locally, through governments and geographic-name boards. But to eliminate a term that's used throughout the country, it's necessary to submit a request to the US Board of Geographic Names (BGN), which standardizes names for maps, charts, and reports. The board has the final say on changing place names and the power to demand a nationwide name change.

According to Lou Yost, executive secretary of the BGN, it isn't that complicated to change a place name, with two major exceptions: "The board is reluctant to name anything new in wilderness areas and we will not consider a commemorative name if they have not been deceased for five years."

Yost also says changing place names isn't costly. The local government may need to pay for new signs, but the maps will be updated in the next revision, which doesn't cost the BGN anything extra.

Native American groups asked the BGN to approve changing all place names with "squaw" in 1999, says Yost. Requests for blanket changes of an offensive word aren't extremely common, but the BGN has made two such changes before. In 1967, the BGN changed all place names with the term "nigger" to "negro." There were 143 such names in the US including, "Nigger Marsh," "Niggerhead Mountain," and "Nigger Mesa." Later, "Jap" in the names of landforms was changed to "Japanese."

The BGN doesn't always honor requests for changes because it values the historic nature of a name. The BGN's Principles, Policies and Procedures states, "Geographic names are part of the historical record of the United States, and that record may be either distorted or disrupted by the elimination of names associated with particular groups of Americans." Yost says the job of the board is to standardize names rather than regulate them.

The controversy over the origin of the word "squaw" contrasts this latest squabble with the previous mass name changes. More importantly, Yost points out that nobody has come up with a proper substitute for "squaw." The two prior mass name changes had a very simple replacement word. Various Native American tribes want to replace "squaw" with a word in their own languages. "They have to come up with a name individually, one by one," Yost says.

Another problem for anti-squaw groups is that there isn't an official consensus that anything needs to be done. Mark Monmonier, a geography professor at Syracuse, tells Gelf, "My impression was that in the case of 'nigger' place names, it was something the government became aware of and it was viewed as highly embarrassing—they thought they should do something about it. It wasn't to my knowledge [the result of] any pushing from African-Americans. In the case of 'squaw,' there seems to be a problem from the Native American community. This is coming from outside of government rather from within."

(Private land isn't bound by the same government policies. If the national and state boards decide to eradicate a term, they are only getting rid of it for geographic landforms. Squaw Valley, for example, can name itself whatever it wants because it is privately owned. Representatives at Squaw Valley USA didn't return phone calls nor emails about the "squaw" controversy and whether they've considered changing the resort's name.)

Since there isn't a federal movement to eradicate "squaw," it falls to the responsibility of local governments and state name boards to make individual decisions. But even with local support, the process of renaming can take a long time.

The former Squaw Peak (originally Squaw Tit Peak) in Phoenix, Arizona, was recently renamed Piestewa Peak, about 15 years after the issue was first raised. Though most agreed the name should be changed, efforts were stalled for years because there wasn't consensus on what to call it. An answer came in the first year of the Iraq war, when a female Hopi soldier, Lori Piestewa, became the first Native American woman killed in combat while fighting for the US military.

"If you called it Cunt Mountain it would be pejoratively the same."— Wendy Kelleher on Squaw Peak
With pressure from Governor Janet Napolitano, in 2003 the Arizona Board of Geographic and Historic Names waived its five-year waiting period and approved the commemorative name for state use. The name change is final in Arizona, but in compliance with the rule of waiting until someone has been deceased five years, the BGN doesn't recognize the name for federal maps and documents.

(Buildings, roads, and man-made locations don't have to follow regulations from geographic name boards. If names are found to be offensive, though, private land owners and cities can change related names. In Phoenix, after the Squaw Peak was renamed Piestewa Peak, the city changed the name of the road, too.)

Locals often are the ones opposing changes. They have allegiance to certain names and don't want a new or hard-to-pronounce name for their creek, valley, or mountain. And local opinion matters. As Yost tells Gelf, "In the [name-change] process, we will contact our state counterparts and the county board of commissioners because local input is of great importance to the board."

Some states are deciding about "squaw" names on an individual basis and others like Maine, Oregon, Montana, and Minnesota enacted legislation to change all names that include "squaw." But these changes are not always welcome. In protest of legislation, officials of Lake County, Minnesota, offered to change Squaw Creek to Politically Correct Creek.

Squaw (Tit) Peak in Phoenix isn't the only geographic landform that references a woman's bosom. Dappled across the United States are names such as Molly's Nipple, Brassiere Hills, and Moose Bosom. Monmonier wrote an entire book on various place names and the politics and stories behind naming, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame. According to his book, there are 28 place names with the word "tit" and 100 with "nipple." Squaw is part of 19 of the 28 "tit" toponyms.

"Basically the people doing the naming in the 19th century had what one might call a quirky sense of humor," Monmonier tells Gelf. "Somehow or other those names took hold."

Correction: Wendy Kelleher is an instructor of English at Arizona State. An earlier version of this article said she taught at the University of Arizona.

Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.

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- Government
- posted on Apr 10, 07
Wendy Kelleher

Hi, Hadley,
my university affiliation is Arizona State University, not University of Arizona. ASU is in Tempe, AZ, while U of A is in Tucson.
thanks for making the change.

- Government
- posted on Apr 10, 07
David Goldenberg

Thanks for the catch, Wendy. It's fixed.

- Government
- posted on Sep 15, 08
Bruce Spangenberger

Squaw Peak used to be a hangout for all the hippies in the 60's.
A local band called "the Beans" (later the Tubes) used to play there alot.
They used to have "Nude-ins" where every one would climb up to the top (so the cops could not swoop on you)take off all our clothes and smoke alot of pot.
Maybe it was the Indian spirits but what a beautiful time in a beautiful place.
What is wrong with Mother Natures herbs and the shape of a human body in the moonlight?

Article by Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.

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