Opinion: Offensive place names and the climate crisis are symptoms of the same problem

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Last fall, two popular ski resorts announced name changes after decades of advocacy by Indigenous women and their communities. California’s legendary Squaw Valley ski resort unveiled its rebrand in August, followed by Maine’s Big Squaw Mountain ski resort in December.

The changes followed a belated recognition among business and outdoor industry leaders of the deep links between racism and the environment, including the climate crisis.

The word squaw, an insult to Native American women, is just one example. Today, more than 1,000 offensive place names dot public lands across the country. They are emblems of the deeper historic and current inequalities that people of color, including Indigenous peoples like myself, have long faced: exclusion from the great climate movement, sanitized versions of land theft, and the fact that we suffer from disproportionate exposure to the environment. health risks, from dangerous oil pipelines to abandoned uranium mines.

Read more: Offensive words and phrases to eliminate from your professional communications

Prioritizing what’s in a name can seem trivial amid the larger goals of reducing emissions and promoting sustainability. But when we identify the climate crisis as one caused by a continued breakdown in our relationship with the natural world – our kinship with life itself – correcting that crisis begins with re-examining the respect we have for nature. earth and, ultimately, for each other.

Drawing on Indigenous ways of knowing, “kinship theory” encompasses not just our human relationships, but the intertwined ties we have with the land, including how we name and regard the land. The Wašiw (Washoe) Tribe of Nevada, who regard Tahoe as the center of their world, have emphasized the kinship theory in their advocacy of Squaw Valley. And ultimately, it was this thought that prompted the resort’s executives to change the name to Palisades Tahoe.

But there’s still a lot of work to do, and the American entertainment industry is playing an outsized role in responding to our planet’s well-being, starting with repairing its entire relationship with the earth and its original stewards.

“Racism, like other issues of concern such as climate change, pandemics, violence, insurgency, mental illness and addiction, is a symptom,” said the late Sagkeeng First Nations Elder, Dr. Dave Courchene, referring to our broken kinship practices. And yes, fixing those essential relationships starts with changing your name.

In November, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo, ordered the renaming of more than 650 federal land units bearing the word “squaw” because of its derogatory reference to female genitalia. Meanwhile, a review is underway on many climbing routes, such as Slavery Wall in Wyoming’s Ten Sleep Canyon, where the first climber agreed to rename the wall and several of its routes after many climbers complained. started pushing for a change.

Read more: Squaw Valley ski resort changes ‘racist and sexist’ name and changes name

The leisure industry has an opportunity to take these corrective advancements even further, especially in the crowded outdoor gear market where everything from coolers and backpacks to novelty jackets bears our names, our heritages and our indigenous languages, as if we were not there to witness the appropriation. But our identities – Chilkat, Kuiu, Ignik, Cotopaxi – are not for sale. And for others, taking advantage of it represents another oppressive act similar to branding a ski resort with the “S-word”. Companies around the world should reevaluate whether the names they rely on are perpetuating the cycle of colonial damage that has historically fueled the climate crisis.

Scientifically, climate change is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But we must also recognize the human side of the problem. Generations of industrial activity and resource extraction have polluted ancestral indigenous lands, leading to misery, dispossession and genocide, all resulting from a clear lack of respect for kinship. To continue at this rate, while ignoring the detrimental impacts that offensive names have on our shared planet, including its original guardians, is to continue to harm the planet. Right now, what is needed are intentional steps towards healing.

Jenni Monet is the author of the “Indigenously” weekend newsletter and a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo. This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.

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