Democratic lawmakers and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland want to change the names of more than 1,000 rivers, mountains and other places because they consider the names to be racist.
Bills introduced last week — one by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and the other by Rep. Al Green, Texas Democrat — also would eliminate the names of places that honor people who “held racially repugnant views” or “carried out injustices against racial minorities,” according to the legislation.
“Racism, even in geography, cannot be tolerated in a country that strives for liberty and justice for all,” Mr. Green said.
The lawmakers refused to provide a list of names it targeted. Columbus Mountain in Colorado and other places named after Christopher Columbus could make the list because critics of the trans-Atlantic explorer say he was an instrument of injustice because of his ill treatment of indigenous people.
Columbus is in the name of 55 populated places, including the capital of Ohio, eight dams, a glacier in Arkansas, and islands in Maine and Arkansas, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Ms. Haaland, the nation’s first American Indian Cabinet secretary, is exploring ways she can unilaterally rename places on public lands.
“We are reviewing the options available for renaming places, including authorities that can be taken by the secretary, to better address a number of names that do not reflect who we are as a nation,” Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.
Efforts to change offensive names of places have been proposed for decades, though with limited scope and limited results.
In 1963, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall ordered the removal from federal maps all places with names that included the N-word.
Still, four graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified several objectionable place names in a recent article in Scientific American.
“Many of these features were named by locals decades or even centuries ago, based on the history of the town or even simply the fact that people of color existed in proximity to the town,” they wrote. “Chinaman Trail in New Mexico was likely named such because Chinese laborers constructed the original trail as part of mining operations. A peak in the Mojave Desert in California is to this day named Pickaninny Buttes, likely because African Americans settled in that region,” they wrote.
Pickaninny refers to a small black child and is considered offensive.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey database, the names of 766 places across the country include the word “negro.” A total of 27 places, including five mountain summits, have names that include the term “Chinaman.”
“We cannot have a just society when racist names are officially sanctioned,” graduate students Meghana Ranganathan, Julia Wilcots, Rohini Shivamoggi and Diana Dumit wrote.
Sometimes, name changes don’t go far enough for the offended parties.
In 2011, Gail and Zeke Smith bought land in Nevada County, Nevada, and objected to the name of N——- Creek, which ran through their property. The county renamed it Negro Creek.
Still uncomfortable with the name, the Smiths asked for it to be changed to “Black Miners Creek.” The county refused, saying most locals wanted to reflect what they had called the creek for years.
Critics say the renaming effort is another attempt by the political left to cleanse or cancel U.S. history, similar to arguments against removing Confederate statues.
“This has nothing to do with the intended purpose but in an attempt to rewrite our history, no different than the way the Russian Communist Party used to rewrite the Great Soviet Encyclopedia whenever someone fell out of favor with the party,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
“We should do all we can to preserve all of our history, both good and bad, so that we are well-educated on everything this country has experienced and to ensure that we do not in the future make some of the mistakes we have made in the past,” he said. “Destroying and rewriting history that does not fit within today’s cultural norms is a mistake.”
The Board on Geographic Names has the authority to change the names of places it considers offensive and has occasionally done so. The board has jurisdiction over natural features, populated places, canals and reservoirs. It has not, however, renamed as many places as the left has proposed.
With their legislation, Ms. Warren and Mr. Green would create a special task force charged with eradicating names it considers offensive. The task force would identify offensive place names and press the Board on Geographic Names to rename them.
Some local governments have been reexamining names of landmarks in recent years. Texas in 1991 attempted to replace the names of places that use the word “negro” with the names of significant Black people in the state’s history. The Board on Geographic Names initially rejected the changes. In June, however, the board reversed decisions and renamed 16 places with names such as “Negro Creek” and “Negrohead Lake.”
The federal government often overrules states on which places should be renamed.
In 2016, tribal leaders in South Dakota called on the state to rename Harney Peak in the Black Hills. The peak, the highest point in the state, was named after Army Gen. William S. Harney, whose soldiers massacred American Indian women and children during a battle in September 1855.
The state’s board that is responsible for naming places rejected the petition in response to public opposition.
When the federal board overruled the state, Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, objected — not because he wanted to honor the massacre but because he believed it was an issue of states’ rights.
A spokesman for Mr. Thune declined to comment on Ms. Warren‘s bill. Mr. Thune said in 2016 that he was “surprised and upset by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names‘ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks.”