Wisconsin Geospatial News

Federal Government Takes Action to Eliminate Derogatory Toponyms

The Secretary of the US Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland, recently signed two orders creating administrative bodies to review and replace derogatory geographic feature names across the country.

Secretarial Order 3404 focuses on one particular derogatory term, a Native American slur, and creates a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force to find replacement names for geographic features bearing this name on federal lands. The Task Force was to be established and chaired by the US Geological Survey (USGS) within 30 days of the Secretarial Order, which was signed on November 19, 2021. Further, the USGS is to develop a list of locations, and select candidate replacement names drawn from a list of nearby associative topographic features, no later than 30 days after the establishment of the Task Force. Within 60 days of receiving the list of candidate names, the Task Force will make the list of candidate names available for public comment via the Federal Register and will engage in Tribal consultation. Decisions on proposed name changes are expected to be finalized by the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) in summer and autumn of 2022.

BGN is a federal body that maintains official toponyms for the nation. State bodies, such as Wisconsin’s Geographic Names Council, forward name change proposals to BGN once they have been adopted at the state level. BGN has long had policies against the use of derogatory names, but is designed to act on a case-by-case basis that puts the onus on a proponent to identify and suggest a replacement for a derogatory name. There have been two other comprehensive federal initiatives in the past, one on 1962 and another in 1974, which removed derogatory terms for “African Americans” and “Japanese” from feature names.

Secretarial Order 3405 creates the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names under the US Park Service to solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory names on federal lands. The Committee will engage with Tribes, state and local governments, and the public. It will recommend to the Secretary of the Interior changes to names that may be considered derogatory on current National Forest System land, units of the National Park Service, components of the National Wilderness Preservation System, any part of the National Landscape Conservation System, and units of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Given how recently the Orders were signed, it is not clear how the Wisconsin Geographic Names Council will be involved in the process. Over the years the Council has worked with local and Tribal representatives to remove derogatory place names, but like the BGN, the process relies on a proponent to identify and suggest a replacement name. A recent example is discussed in this news story. There are still some derogatory toponyms in the state, as discussed in this news story discussing the Interior Secretary’s recent actions.

The timeline for Secretarial Order 3404 is short, so if you have an interest in this topic you should monitor the State Cartographer’s Office website, as well as the Department of Interior newsroom and the Federal Register.