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South Dakota tries to change "Negro" and "squaw" place-names

A lone vehicle travels one of the many monotonous roads on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. REUTERS/ANDY CLARK
A lone vehicle travels one of the many monotonous roads on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. REUTERS/ANDY CLARK

By Carey Gillam

(Reuters) - South Dakota is finding it difficult to change time-worn names of locations that are seen as offensive by African-Americans and Native Americans, such as "Negro" and "squaw" creeks, canyons and mountain ridges.

The state issued a plea this month for public assistance in renaming five geographic features. The five are part of a total of 18 sites that include the word "squaw" or "Negro" in their names and have been designated by the legislature as needing renaming.

But some of the replacement names suggested by the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names have been rejected by an obscure federal body called the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

"It is hard for us to come up with a good name," said June Hansen, a member of the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names. Tops on the list for renaming are places known for decades as "Negro Wool Ridge" and "Negro Gulch," landmarks that in their early history were known by a different "n" word, said Hansen.

An effort to rename Negro Creek to Medicine Mountain Creek failed to garner approval of the federal body, for instance.

"There is some pretty strict criteria for what the name has to be," said Hansen.

The federal board says that names should center on local history, folklore, events or natural aspects of the area, and says names cannot duplicate others attached to geographic features in South Dakota or nearby states.

The federal body does not consider the word "Negro" to be offensive, said Lou Yost, its executive secretary. Similarly squaw is not a problem for the federal board, though the three-letter shortened version of Japanese is, Yost said.

South Dakota is one of about a dozen U.S. states that in recent years have attempted to alter location names that include the word Negro or other terms that today are considered insulting to certain ethnic groups or minorities. Minnesota, Oregon, Idaho, Florida, Maine, Montana and North Carolina all have taken up the issue.

The U.S. Census Bureau said this year that after more than a century of use, it will drop the word "Negro" as a description for black Americans in its surveys. Instead census forms will use "black" or "African-American."

In South Dakota, the process of name-changing started in 2001. The state has so far successfully renamed 20 sites deemed to carry offensive names, many of them reflective of the large population of Sioux American Indians who live in South Dakota. Little Squaw Creek has become Badger Clark Creek, for instance.

But the years of ongoing work have prompted some criticism that the state has taken political correctness too far.

Jay Vogt, a member of the state renaming board, admits the process has been time-consuming. But he said it is important.

"It is easy for us not in the shoes of someone who has had racial slurs used against them... not to understand. But we need to step back and take a look and be sensitive," Vogt said.

The South Dakota board asked a Sioux tribe official to help rename many areas and is seeking public input now on those suggestions. Little Squaw Humper Table would become Tahc'a Okute Aglehan C'ikala, and Squaw Humper Dam would become Tahc'a Okute Mni Onaktake.

Some board members say they cannot pronounce the new names and it is not certain they will be approved by the U.S. board. But J.R. LaPlante, chairman of the South Dakota naming board, said they will work just fine and will underscore the "cultural lesson" of the region.

"They will get used to it eventually," he said.

(Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Greg McCune and Andre Grenon)

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