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Know the West

National parks center colonizer histories through place names

A recent study analyzes the impacts of appropriated and derogatory place names in the nation’s national parks.


In early April, a research article was published in the academic journal People and Nature that evaluated the place names in 16 national parks, ranging from Canyonlands to Yellowstone. The authors assessed the available data on geographical sites to determine whether a given place name “perpetuates settler colonial mythologies.” Their research reveals that many of the place names employ racist slurs concerning racial minority groups.

Canyonlands National Park is one park that names landmarks with widely acknowledged racial slurs.
The study in question, “Words are Monuments,” arrives at a moment of heightened interest in confronting the legacy of colonial place names. In February, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a departmental initiative to replace the names of 660 geographic features that bear the “sq--” slur with names designated by local tribal nations. An upcoming forum, which will include one of the researchers on the panel, will discuss the impact of this research and what it might entail for Indian Country.

Below, here are numbers illuminated in the report: 

The ratio at which Indigenous and Black place names are outnumbered by names that "perpetuate settler colonialism."   

The percentage of traditional Indigenous place names found within the 16 reviewed parks.

Place name counts by categories and potential number of times a problematic place name was exposed to park visitors annually.

Every park examined contained “at least one or more places or features named after people who supported racist ideologies, capitalized on Indigenous dispossession and colonization, and/or participated in acts of genocide.”

Names in parks that use widely acknowledged racial slurs, including the words “sq—” (in Canyonlands and Theodore Roosevelt), “c—n” (in Everglades) and “savage” (in Denali).

Place names with English translations of traditional Indigenous names.

Settler colonizer place names that replaced a known traditional Indigenous place name.

The percentage by which the occurrence of Indigenous place names increased as the study moved westward through the parks system.

The proportion of place name problem types varied among the parks. Each park’s scores (red line) are that park’s proportion of each problem type, scaled by the maximum proportion observed for each problem type among all the parks. The grey shape in each plot is the average score among the parks. Parks are ordered west (top left) to east (bottom right).

Miacel Spotted Elk is an editorial intern at High Country News reporting on the Indigenous Affairs desk. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy