To update: This story was updated on Wednesday November 24th, 2021 at 7:44 PM with additional comments from Diego Medina.
LAS CRUCES – The city is considering changing the name of a street in the Foothills neighborhood because it uses a term that is offensive to Native American people.
The idea of changing the name of Squaw Mountain Drive was recently voiced by the Alderman of Fourth. But she said she first learned of the derogatory name when the council was grappling with a zoning issue in the area last winter have dealt.
“The reason I mentioned it was because I was so shocked that we had that name on one of our streets,” Bencomo told Sun News.
“Squaw” is considered to be an ethnic slander, especially against Native American women. Last week, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to head a cabinet agency, declared squaw a derogatory term and announced steps to remove it and similar terms from federal geographic place names.
Haaland issued a secretarial order on November 19 that, in addition to formally labeling “Squaw” as an insult, is setting up a federal working group that will find substitute names for geographical features that currently use the word.
Another order issued by Haaland on the same day sets up a federal advisory board that will evaluate and recommend changes to other derogatory federal geographic names. The committee will consist of experts in tribal representation and civil rights, anthropology and history.
Larry Nichols, director of the city’s community development department – the department tasked with overseeing the possible change to the street name – said the process to consider a name change has been initiated.
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Since the process was initiated by the city, the name change proposal will require approval from 75 percent of residents who live on or near Squaw Mountain Drive, Nichols said. They will be notified of the proposal by mail, Nichols said, and have about 30 days to respond whether or not they agree with the proposal.
If less than 75 percent agree, Nichols says the community will have to wait a year before proposing another name change. If enough residents agree, Nichols said the name change would still be subject to city council approval.
“I know people will see (the name change) as trivial,” said Bencomo. “I know people will say there are more important things to do. But here, too, it is easy to do the right thing. “
Bencomo said she hoped a new name could be created with contributions from current Squaw Mountain Drive residents and the local indigenous community as these are the two groups most affected.
“You may not see yourself reflected in these words (or) in these terms, but there are many people in our community who are,” added Bencomo.
The street is in District 6, represented by City Councilor Yvonne Flores. During a recent council meeting, Flores indicated that she supported the change.
Reactions to Haaland’s decision
The Home Secretary’s decision is likely to affect at least a few locations in Doña Ana County – Squaw Mountain, Baylor Peak, Baylor Pass, and Baylor Canyon, which are on state.
Lt. Col. John Robert Baylor, after whom the canyon, pass and summit are named, was a Confederate who led violent sieges against indigenous peoples and published an anti-Native American magazine called The White Man.
“We consider our public land to be a great example of conservation, and we shouldn’t honor racist names in these places,” said Patrick Nolan, executive director of Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, which pushed the names alongside the Chiricahua Apache Change Nation and the Piro Pueblo de Las Cruces. Nolan is married to Bencomo.
“The Confederate history of Las Cruces is not to be proud of, and there are many place names in the area that honor these specific personalities who are part of this Confederate history,” said Diego Medina, member of the Piro Manso Tiwa seeking recognition of a federal tribe. “It’s time to stop.”
Nolan said the proposed name changes did not go beyond the initial discussions, but for him Haaland’s orders mean that the name change process will be easier as it will begin within the federal government rather than requiring a public initiation.
More:Tribal member of the Piro Manso Tiwa reports on the indigenous history of the Mesilla Valley
“Currently, the Board on Geographic Names is structured to act on a case-by-case basis through a process that obliges proponents to identify the offensive name and propose a replacement,” the Home Office said in a press release. “The review and approval process can be lengthy and often takes years to complete a name change.”
Chiricahua Nation’s leader Joe Saenz, a descendant of the Warm Springs Apache, said his nation would want the new trait names to reflect the original Apache names.
“I’ve spoken to elders who remember the original names,” Saenz said. “We have come closer to the responsibility of correctly identifying these place names.”
Medina said he believes the Piro Manso Tiwa tribe should take the lead in renaming the features to reflect their earliest names, since the Manso were the earliest known indigenous people of the Mesilla Valley region.
Michael McDevitt is the city and county government reporter for Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected] or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.