Michigan removes derogatory Native slur from Oxford Township boat launch


The state is finalizing a name change to remove the word “squaw” from the name of a lake and boat launch in northern Oakland County. The sites are to be known as “Paint Lake.” (Shutterstock)

By Ashley Zhou

Officials at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are taking the final step to eliminate an offensive term for Native American women from the name of a boat launch in Oakland County.

DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division announced in June it is removing the word “squaw” from the name of the boat launch; it will now be called the Paint Lake DNR Boat Launch. The action followed the renaming of the lake itself last year to Paint Lake.

The moves are part of a broader reckoning at the state and federal levels to remove derogatory and racist names from geographical sites across the U.S.

The renaming of the boat launch, in Oxford Township, was first announced at a Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) meeting in June.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a cabinet post, moved to replace the word on hundreds of federal geographic sites in 2021.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), the federal body entrusted to name places, formed a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force to remove the term, which had shown up in 643 public places. The word was removed from 32 sites in Michigan in 2022.

The term has Native origins, coming from the Algonguian word for “woman,”  but its usage had been corrupted by nonIndigenous speakers “as an offensive ethnic racial and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women,” according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Interior.

Using the word is “offensive and inappropriate,” agreed Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for DNR.

“The renaming is something we’ve been asking for as Native people for a long time,” Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan and citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, told Bridge Michigan. “Having those derogatory names out there and allowing that to continue to occur is harmful.”

The term is just one of many “names that were spoken of about Native people that were not our choice,” Ettawageshik said, and Indigenous communities “have been working for a long time to get more respectful names used.”

School districts in Michigan retired their Native American-based nicknames and mascots just last year — rebranding team uniforms, school apparel and logos. The states’ historical markers also underwent a historic preservation effort to get rid of racist historical markers around the state in 2021.

“It’s very good for us when we’re aware of the problem, to find ways to fix it and to move forward working together in a more healthy, societal way,” Ettawageshik said.

“Paint Lake DNR Boat Launch” will become official following public comment and the official Land Use Order change signed by the Acting DNR Director Shannon Lott at an upcoming NRC meeting.

Ashley Zhou has an environmental reporting internship under the MSU Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s diversity reporting partnership with the Mott News Collaborative. This story was produced for Bridge Michigan.

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