Alaska News

More than 2 dozen Alaska places will get new names to erase derogatory word for Native women

The U.S. Interior Department is moving ahead with the process of changing hundreds of federally listed place names that contain the derogatory term “squaw,” including more than two dozen in Alaska.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland officially declared the word derogatory last November and issued an order saying it should be “erased from the National landscape and forever replaced.”

The renaming campaign is long overdue and crucial, especially in Alaska, said Fairbanks filmmaker Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Gwich’in, who cheered the role of Haaland — a member of the Pueblo of Laguna — in moving the process forward.

“It’s a pretty big deal to strip these names away, these terms that are sexist and racist and degrading,” Johnson said. “Terms like this really speak to the dominant culture’s perspective on how they view us as Indigenous women and lends itself to why we go missing and are murdered at such a higher rate compared to other groups.”

Alaska has the nation’s highest rate of sexual assault. Native women represent a disproportionately high share of the victims.

The word “squaw” evokes a long history of violence against Native women that began with the first explorers of 1492 and extends from miners and trappers to modern-day man camps, said Jody Potts, Han Gwich’in, an activist and wilderness guide.

“I’m really looking forward to that change so hopefully one day, when I have granddaughters, they don’t have to experience and accept this negative term for Native women — but also the violence that is really rooted in that mentality,” Potts said.


Push for original names

The Interior Department is gathering input through tribal consultation and public comment until April 25.

As part of the renaming effort, the U.S. Geological Survey scoured place names for references to the word and then suggested alternatives, though new names are being accepted.

The agency based its suggestions for possible replacement names on the existing names of five nearby geographic features, according to Mike Tischler, chair of the Department of Interior Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force.

Some, including Johnson, say the word should be replaced with original place names that existed for millennia.

The Chickaloon Native Village is not formally involved in the consultation process but is suggesting any changes make use of original and uniquely descriptive place names of the Ahtna people, said Lisa Wade, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council executive director.

That would make the place called Squaw Creek, near Sheep Mountain, Water Lily Creek or Xelt’aats’i Na’, Wade said.

“Why do we hold so tight to the ugly parts of history?” she said, likening the time it took to make name changes to the recent reckoning with Indian boarding school atrocities. “How about we use some of the original names that have existed for thousands of years instead?”

The 27 sites getting renamed are scattered throughout the state, many of them remnants of mining prospects or transportation corridors where white settlers congregated.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the term as “often offensive: an American Indian woman” and “usually disparaging: woman, wife.” Its source is presumed to be from the Algonquin language “esqua,” “squa” or “skwa.”

The exact origins of some of the Alaska place names are imprecise. Nearly half, or 13, of the 27 place names to be changed are in the Yukon-Koyukuk area. Several were named by prospectors, others by riverboat pilots, according to Donald J. Orth’s “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names.”

Squaw Rapids in the North Fork of the Koyukuk River on the south slope of the Brooks Range was apparently named “after an Indian woman who drowned in its fury more than fifty years ago,” the dictionary notes, referencing a 1956 report.

Road signs not included

The action seeks to change geographic names on the federal registry but not state and local names, or road names, such as Squaw Valley Circle in Eagle River or Old Squaw Loop near Wasilla.

The names of cultural or man-made features such as roads, streets, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals and airports are not under the Board on Geographic Names’ purview, with very limited exceptions, according to USGS officials.

Anchorage municipal addressing officials say they are not in the process of changing any road names in conjunction with the federal renaming effort.

“There is a public process we have to follow on public roads, so we as a municipal government couldn’t just go change it without notification and input from the property owners,” said Carlene Wilson, municipal addressing official.

Wilson said she had no plans to “push anything like that forward.”

The Mat-Su road, however, may see a change. The loop is part of a subdivision with roads named after birds, according to borough planning and land-use director Alex Strawn. The road containing the offensive name apparently refers to a duck formerly known as “Oldsquaw” but now called a long-tailed duck.


Someone called the borough saying they wanted the road’s name changed and got the paperwork to do so but didn’t follow through, Strawn said. A petitioner needs to obtain signatures from the majority of lot owners on the street in favor of the change, or the borough platting officer can make the change.

Now the latter is likely to happen.

“Given the Federal effort to remove ‘Squaw,’ I anticipate we will be initiating the effort ourselves,” he wrote in an email.

The girls who got ahead of the process

In Dillingham, three fifth graders got started on the name-changing process last year, months before the federal order even came out.

The trio — Trista and Alora Wassily and Harmony Larson — started pushing to change the name of Squaw Creek in April 2021. The roughly 5-mile creek runs from a lake to the Nushagak River. Its name pops up in at least a half-dozen places around Dillingham, the girls found.

Now sixth graders, they worked with the 3,100-member Curyung Tribe to find another name: Seven Sisters Creek, based on a local story that seven sisters came to live in the area in the early 1900s and later became the matriarchs of modern Curyung families.

For white men, the creek became known as a place to find a Native wife and they called it by the racialized term for a Native woman.

But now the 60-day comment window that accompanies the federal renaming process is rushing the pace the tribe would have preferred, Curyung tribal administrator Courtenay Carty said. They had hoped for more time to reach out to elders and tribal members before making a final decision on what name to bring forward.


The federal suggestions also don’t include Seven Sisters Creek. Instead, USGS suggests basing the creek’s new name on local landmarks Bradford Point, Grassy Island, Snag Point, Sheep Island or Picnic Point.

Other naming ideas can be submitted through the comment process, said Tischler with the Interior Department’s task force.

The tribe is also pushing for independent tribal consultation on the change with the Interior Department along with the group tribal consultation that’s already planned, officials say.

“We’ve always taken the position if the federal government or state government is doing something on our territorial homelands, then they should consult with us,” said First Chief Jonathan “JJ” Larson. “We live here, we’ve been here since before the federal government came along. We have important knowledge of the area.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Lisa Wade’s position as executive director of Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. She is no longer a council member.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at