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South Dakota woman seeks to change offensive names of places

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 8-09

South Dakota needs to finish the job of getting rid of offensive names for creeks, lakes, gulches and other places because those old names cause hurt to Native American women and black people, according to American Indian activist Betty Ann Gross of Sioux Falls.

Gross said she was surprised to learn that the state’s renaming effort had stalled, so she asked the Legislature for help. At her urging, lawmakers this year passed a measure that continues the process of changing offensive names, which include the terms Negro and squaw.

If people hear about the name changes, they will be less likely to use the offensive terms in their own speech, Gross said.

“Our Native American women need to become empowered and be proud of who they are,” she said. “Some of them do just stand there and take it by being called that name, squaw,” Gross said.

Living in South Dakota’s largest city, Gross hears some Native American women refer to themselves as squaws. Some people refer to black people as Negroes or even other names, she said.

“We’re still stereotyped as squaws. We’re still stereotyped as oppressed American Indian women,” Gross said. “By changing those place names to something reflective of these areas, it’ll be like the first step toward bringing that image of American Indian women, Sioux women, up to a higher standard.”

Jay D. Vogt, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society and a member of the new state Board on Geographic Names, said most of the offensive names likely were created when white people moved into South Dakota more than a century ago.


The 2001 Legislature passed a law to start eliminating offensive names, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has since changed the names of 20 places in South Dakota. The law passed this year lists another 17 that need to be changed.

The new law sets up a state Board of Geographic Names, with members from five state agencies. It will make recommendations to the national board and other state and local agencies. Counties, other local government agencies and interested people can suggest replacement names, but the law says the state board will have the final say in the recommendations.

All the remaining offensive names listed in the new law refer to Negro or squaw. The remaining unchanged names mostly refer to places so small they do not appear on most maps, state officials told the Legislature earlier this year.

Sen. Jim Bradford, R-Pine Ridge, said it’s time to get rid of the offensive names.

“The names we’re changing, I just wouldn’t want to be called,” said Bradford, one of the few Indian lawmakers in the Legislature.

In many cases, replacement names have already been recommended. For example, Squaw Lake in Marshall County in northeastern South Dakota would become Six Mile Lake. Negro Gulch in Lawrence County in the northern Black Hills would become Last Chance Gulch.

Vogt said the new board will look at names that are historically appropriate but not offensive.