Organizers Say Changing the Name Changes the Game by Teaching Future Generations to Celebrate Differences Rather Than Perpetuate Harmful Stereotypes
In honor of Black History Month, a groundswell of organizations and influencers say it’s time to eliminate geographic names that perpetuate stereotypes and hate — toward African Americans and all People of Color.
Several places were recently renamed across the U.S. when Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland created the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force and officially designated the s-word (used as a slur for Native women) as offensive. She then formed the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names.
Today, the Advisory Committee is accepting recommendations to change other offensive place names throughout the nation. The Greater New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, the Lakota People’s Law Project and People, Not Mascots invite other organizations and influencers to sign onto this action to honor BIPOC (Black/Indigenous People of Color) and ask for public support to rename the most offensively titled places in the U.S.
BISMARCK, N.D., FEBRUARY 1, 2024 — At the start of Black History Month, three justice organizations — the Lakota People’s Law Project, the Greater New York chapter of Black Lives Matter and People, Not Mascots — are calling for changes to racist and other offensive geographical names across the United States. The Lakota People’s Law Project is hosting a call to action in which members of the public can email U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names to change monikers listed on the organization’s “Geographic Names Hall of Shame,” including Darky Knob in Kentucky, Big Negro Creek in Missouri, Pickaninny Buttes in California, Wetback Tank in New Mexico and Red Skin Knolls in Utah.
“The power of naming creates realities, creates dynamics between the oppressed and the oppressor, the colonizer and the colonized,” says Lakota People’s Law Project Director Chase Iron Eyes. “How can we, in good conscience, let these names exist in 2024? What does that teach our young ones? What does that say about our culture?”
Articles published in recent years posit that historical biases expressed through offensively named places do real harm in the present day. Proponents for changing place names say that’s true not just for Black and Native people, but for Asian, Latino, and other marginalized communities. This living legacy of white supremacy, they say, continues to make BIPOC feel disrespected, continuing the vicious cycle started by America’s original sins of slavery and colonization.
“Invoking the Akan proverb of 'Sankofa,' every generation must make it a practice to reflect, rectify, and evolve from the wrongs of the past to create a better future for our children's children,” says Nadia Brewer, who is Afro-Indigenous and serves as Lakota People’s Law Project Social Media Manager and influencer liaison. “With all that is taking place in the world at this time, it is of the utmost importance to return to this ancestral practice to find grounding and resolution.”
Haaland Leads Advocacy for Name Changes
A group of geoscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an open letter in 2020 decrying what they counted as 1,441 federally recognized place-names containing slurs across the United States. They advocated the passage of a bill — the Reconciliation in Place Names Act — introduced by then-congresswoman Haaland, which failed to gain passage before the expiry of the congressional session.
That year, Haaland, who is a member of New Mexico’s Pueblo of Laguna, said, “It’s past time to change the offensive names of public lands, especially with input from groups who have been discriminated against.”
The bill laid out what would become a key to Haaland’s agenda as Interior Secretary — targeting places named with racial slurs or in honor of individuals who “held racially repugnant views, committed atrocities against Native Americans, or supported or effectuated discriminatory policies.”
Changing Place Names Now Matters
“It is a step in the right direction for Secretary Haaland’s office to have the courage to begin conversations to rectify the long-standing racism that exists against Black and Native Americans. In a nation plagued by poverty, injustice and hopelessness, changing racist location names is a simple fix,” says Chivona Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater NY and Black Opportunities. “Black Lives Matter Greater New York has fought to remove statues across this country of racist figures and colonizers, and we will continue to fight until all the names on the Lakota Law’s Geographic Names Hall of Shame are replaced.”
Opponents of name changes frequently use arguments invoking “tradition.” But Tokata Iron Eyes, who serves as an organizer for the Lakota People’s Law Project, says that while a place name can be something that inspires honor and local pride, those things should not be defined by something that offends. “Racism celebrates the worst of a place’s history and sets that precedent for future generations,” she says. “People argue that removing racial slurs from place names erases their community’s history or does a disservice to historic People of Color who the place was named after. There is no honor in using a racial slur, period.”
Tokata Iron Eyes says that if an offensive place name is meant to honor a person or group of people of color who live or used to live there, “Get specific and name it after the actual person or family. A place name that’s specific and intentional does more to honor history and encourages an attitude of respect. Being mindful of this makes a difference in how the next generation thinks and navigates the world.”
Organizers point out that offensive names don’t just live on a map. “Many of these names are printed on street signs, in books, on shirts and souvenirs, repeated on social media and in the news. They are spoken daily by locals and may be invoked in the names of schools or businesses, postal designations, and points of interest,” says Lily Joy Winder, who is Afro-Indigenous and runs People, Not Mascots, an organization dedicated to changing offensive school and sports mascots and nicknames.
Supporting the Wellbeing of the Next Generations
Winder says she’s joining the coalition to rename geographic locations because doing so can serve a similar function to renaming teams. “Names have power. Like offensive mascot and nicknames in sports, place names implicitly teach us what is acceptable and what isn’t,” she says. “Outdated caricatures and monikers are not harmless. Their societal acceptance can lead to a perpetuation of misunderstanding and hate, often affecting children the most.”
Racism has been shown to specifically affect the health of kids, according to an article by Claire McCarthy, MD published by Harvard University. McCarthy largely focuses on structural racism as expressed through socioeconomic disparities and implicit bias. Racism, she writes, “truly is a disease. Racism and its effects can lead to chronic stress for children. And chronic stress leads to actual changes in hormones that cause inflammation in the body, a marker of chronic disease.”
These health effects are one reason BIPOC care about how they’re represented in both sports and the larger culture. According to a University of Michigan report, among Native Americans who frequently engage in tribal and cultural practices, 67 percent found the (since changed) Redskins team name offensive. And as the Kansas City Chiefs prepare for another Super Bowl, it’s worth noting that 70 percent find sports fans wearing headdresses to be offensive. 65 percent find the “tomahawk chop” offensive, and 73 percent find fan imitations of Native dances offensive.
“Native appropriation in sports and racist place names belong in the same category of things that should be dealt with immediately for the health of our children and our society. We welcome everyone to join with us and sign onto this action to change offensive place names across Turtle Island,” says Chase Iron Eyes, using the name that many Native people ascribe to North America.
“Since our email to Secretary Haaland and the Committee is customizable,” Iron Eyes continues, “those who add their voices should feel free to suggest changing any offensive place name they know. We encourage and welcome people to take and share this action, and we invite all justice organizations and influencers to join this effort. Together, we have an opportunity to find improved ways to honor our past and create a better future for the generations to come.”
Take Action and Learn More
Send an email to Secretary Haaland and the Advisory Committee here: https://action.lakotalaw.org/action/change-the-names
The Lakota People’s Law Project is dedicated to reversing the slow genocide of the Lakota People and destruction of their culture, the Lakota People’s Law Project partners with Native communities to protect sacred lands, safeguard human rights, promote sustainability, reunite indigenous families, and much more. For more, visit: lakotalaw.org
Black Lives Matter Greater New York (BLM NY) is an action coalition that assists, builds, and empowers black communities in the Greater New York area. BLM NY builds community through civic engagement, education and mentorship. BLM NY's vision is to directly impact the policies that impact local conditions focusing on: criminal justice reform, basic public safety, fair and equal access to education, jobs and infrastructure. Through grassroots organizing and direct action, BLM NY serves as a resounding voice for the underserved and disenfranchised. The mission is to thrive not survive #BlacklivesmatterNY #BLMNY. For more, visit: brightest.io/cause/black-lives-matter-greater-new-york-ny
About People, Not Mascots
People, Not Mascots works to dismantle the use of Native mascots in the United States. These offensive caricatures expose Native children to racist stereotypes that have been proven to distance them from their own culture and lower self-esteem. In order to cultivate Native excellence and achievement, we need to eradicate these harmful mascots. Our organization recognizes that Native mascots in K-12 schools do not accurately represent the richness and diversity within Native cultures. Join us as we condemn racist mascots, and declare our Native children People, Not Mascots. For more visit: peoplenotmascots.us