UNR professor to serve on Domestic Names Committee

Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 4:20 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Squaw Valley Ski Resort was established in 1949 and is known for hosting the 1960 Olympics. But in the spring of 2021, the resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe.

Over the years the word “Squaw” has been accepted as a racial slur--so much so, earlier this month, the Department of Interior declared the word “Squaw” a derogatory term and removed it from all federal usage.

A list of more than 600 geographical nationwide with the word “Squaw” was released along with the name replacement. Here in Nevada, it meant a geographical name change to 34 sites.

“Alternative names for all of these sites was made and it was a fairly quick turnaround and not widely publicized,” says Christine Johnson Ph.D., a geography professor at UNR. “Officially all terms were changed on September 8th just this month,” she says.

Johnson, a member of the Nevada State Board of Geographic Names, says that is not the end of it.

Now the Department of Interior has put together a 17-member committee to look at other federal sites with names that are possibly derogatory. Johnson was selected as one of those committee members.

“We are meant to focus just with derogatory terms at this time,” she says. “Something that is intentionally hurtful, a slanderous word for most likely an ethnic group,” says Johnson.

Depending upon the committee’s findings, there could be name changes coming to federal forests, parks, wildlife refuges to mention just a few.

Johnson says the moves will be controversial to many who believe such changes will alter history and the reasons behind the names.

“Understanding some part of history was already erased with the presence of modern maps and the English language on the landscape in the first place,” says Johnson. “The map makers spoke English. Quite often there was knowledge of the traditional names. They were just left off the maps,” she says.

The committee will be deliberative she says. And changes will not be made quickly.

While the Domestic Names Committee will certainly attempt to identify the derogatory geographical names on federal lands...that same committee is not charged with name replacement.

That will be left to others with input from the public. A federal data base archives variants of geographical names for quick reference of former names of sites. So, someone looking for an alternative name to a site will be able to find it.

Johnson says the committee will meet in November of the first time. The task at hand, finding derogatory names nationwide at federal sites could take 2 years.