JACKSON — Ten months after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared the word “sq---” derogatory, the name is gone from the nation’s federal public lands.
Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, declared the centuries-old term for a native woman derogatory on Nov. 19, 2021, and ordered the U.S. Board on Geographic Names — the federal body tasked with naming geographic places — to start the process of public comment for replacing it.
In Wyoming that means 41 peaks, creeks and other natural features have fresh names on USGS maps as of Aug. 8.
In Teton County, a creek, a stream and a basin no longer contain the slur.
The word will stick, however, to 40-some county addresses mostly clustered on the private “Sq--- Creek Road” in a subdivision near Game Creek.
For a web of legal, bureaucratic and emotional reasons, that’s not likely to change.
In 2020, Don and Gwenn Wadsworth first asked county commissioners to rename the road where they’ve lived for 43 years.
“It is so sad, embarrassing and hateful that we still have to tell people and write our address with the very racist word, ‘squaw,’” they wrote in another email to county commissioners and town councilors in February 2022.
Commissioner Luther Propst replied thanking the couple for raising the question of the road name, which he called “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.”
The county commission has had a few discussions in the last couple of years about adopting the road in question, and during those discussions, Propst wrote, “we have made it clear that the name will change to Game Creek Road if the county adopts the road.”
But without unanimous consent of the owners of 35 different addresses on the road, the county would likely have to condemn private property, Propst told the News&Guide.
“Such a state of disagreement and condemnation isn’t a priority for us,” Propst said. “It would upset people and expose us to concerns down in Cheyenne.”
Sq--- Creek Draw subdivision resident and local lawyer Stefan Fodor is one of those people.
Fodor, who practices real estate law, said any name change to the road would need the consent of the special improvement board that runs that private road district, and the subdivision would take consent of each landowner.
“If someone wants to now change the name of my subdivision, that does affect my rights,” he said, “because now I’ve got to talk to my bank, and I’ve got to talk to people who send me mail, and that’s an inconvenience.”
Former County Commissioner Sandy Shuptrine, who lives near but not on that road, begged to differ.
“I actually think the county does have the authority to change it,” she said. “It’s not comfortable, I get it, but I think they can clean this up.”
Shuptrine cited judicial rulings on that specific road that confirmed an original easement for the road was open to “any other person or persons, for his or their benefit and advantage, at all times freely to pass and repass.”
“So it’s a public road that runs across private property,” Shuptrine said, “and that’s kind of where we’re stuck.”
The community is also “stuck” on whether the word is offensive.
Fodor said that he’d found no “universal consensus” on whether the term for Native women is a slur.
“I don’t think we can legislate to sort of the lowest common denominator of offense,” he said.
Becky Cloetta also lives on the controversially named road and said in a neighborhood email chain that circulated following the federal name change that she did not believe the word to be racist.
“This is Wyoming, and we have a rich history that I do not want to see erased. These French and Indian names that grace our mountains, rivers, cities, and roads are what makes us Wyoming,” she wrote.
Type in “Is ‘sq---’ offensive?” and the first hit is an Indian Country Today article published in 2014 citing several Indigenous people and academics offering nuanced views, from a historical consultant saying the origin of the word is the relatively neutral “totality of being female” to an academic advocating to “reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over.”
The article’s author, Vincent Schilling, is the associate editor and senior correspondent at Indian Country Today.
“Most historians and linguists appear to be more supportive of a non-derogatory meaning, the use of the word is still looked at as offensive to many others,” Schilling writes.
The article was updated Feb. 23 to fit the current style guide for Indian Country Today, which no longer prints or repeats what it calls “the s-word.”
Two Eastern Shoshone women who spoke with the News&Guide said that, in their community, the word was definitively outdated and notoriously offensive.
“It’s racist. It’s ugly,” Lynette St. Clair said. “I’m just kind of shocked that somebody would [have] a logical explanation for not wanting to change it, you know, obviously, it’s a derogatory term.”
Robyn Rofkar, administrative assistant at the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center, said the word is dehumanizing because it’s racialized, like saying “buck” or “papoose” instead of just saying “a man” or “a baby.”
“It is offensive,” Rofkar said. “These names have been being changed for many years now.”
Hard to say? Try it anyway.
Even as an Indian Education Coordinator in Fort Washakie schools, St. Clair said it would be hard for non-Shoshone speakers to pronounce the new USGS names.
Just west of Pannaite Naokwaide, or Bannock Creek, the other former “sq---” creek in Teton County near South Park is now Paateheya’ateka’a Naokwaide, or Elk Eater Creek.
Of the over 650 name changes, many but not most found their new names from local Indigenous languages.
Asked for a pronunciation guide for the new Indigenous names, a spokesperson from USGS said the agency had no such list and recommended reaching out to local tribes.
Though it’s not convenient, St. Clair said, it’s productive for non-Shoshone speakers to learn the pronunciations and the meanings of the names.
Like most Native languages, Shoshone is traditionally oral with no standardized spelling. As linguists scramble to preserve the language in all its dialects — there are about 100 fluent language speakers on the Wind River reservation — more than one spelling method has emerged, St. Clair said.
The English translations are helpful, she said, but “I think that we need to retain as much of the original names for the lands by using the proper word while we still have speakers left to pronounce it correctly.”
When people understand the original names of these spaces, “they are able to understand the connection of language to land,” she said. “Resorting back to those original names is only right.”
What about the other maps?
While the Department of the Interior now uses “sq___” in all official communications, the word is not scrubbed from federal use.
The creek the road was named after is now Pannaite Naokwaide, or Bannock Creek, on federal maps. The creek name hasn’t changed yet on Apple Maps or Google Maps.
Requests for comment from All Trails, Apple Maps and Google Maps were not answered by press time, but in March The New York Times reported that Google Maps said it would update the names as soon as the change was complete.
Name changes still have to trickle down, even with agencies that were already on board, like the U.S. Forest Service, which was one of eight departments on the 13-member Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force.
If you’re looking for a local hike near Red Top Meadows, for example, you might use the Forest Service’s page for Sq--- Creek Trail.
Trails and Wilderness Specialist Tim Farris looks after names on local Forest Service maps, signs and in the trail database.
The change on his end hasn’t happened yet but could take as little as a week, he said.
“No one would be upset, I think,” Farris said, “at least locally.”
While “sq---” will stick around on some private addresses in Teton County, other states have passed laws that mandate the word be erased from nonfederal sites.
Among those are Oregon, Maine, Montana and Minnesota, where the city of Sq—- Lake has thus far refused to change.
Likely the most high-profile name change is of the former “Sq--- Valley” ski area near Lake Tahoe, California, which changed its name to Palisades Tahoe in November 2021.
The resort explains online that, starting in 2020, employees “spoke extensively to the local community, heavily researched local history” to arrive at a new name, and the change was community-led and rebutted “suggestions that we are ‘trying to be woke’ or that this change was required by our parent company.”
The mass, rapid renaming effort for federal use of “sq---” happened after 90 days of public comment from tribal governments and 60 days of general public comment.
The Board of Geographic Names does not determine what is or is not offensive, its website says, except notably in 1974 when it ordered the derogatory word “Jap” be replaced with “Japanese.”
In 1963 the interior secretary mandated that federal land using the n-word change to “Negro.” In June 2021 the Board of Geographic Names renamed 16 geographic features in Texas that contained the world “Negro.”
Though name changes have long been met with resistance at a local level across Wyoming, both Rofkar and St. Clair said the removal of a word many consider ugly and racist is “a long time coming.”