LAS CRUCES - It's increasingly unlikely Las Cruces will change the name of a street in the Foothills area which uses a slur for Indigenous women.
By the city's own rules, if fewer than 75 percent of people "who own property which fronts on or is adjacent to" the street agree to the change, it won't happen. The city sent letters to the 20 residences on Squaw Mountain Drive asking residents to respond to an online survey to get feedback on the proposal. Residents had until Dec. 30 to complete the survey.
District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo first suggested changing the name of Squaw Mountain Drive last fall. District 6 Councilor Yvonne Flores, whose district includes the street, has expressed support in the past.
Flores was unavailable for comment for this story.
Larry Nichols, director of the Las Cruces Community Development Department — the department overseeing the proposed name change — provided the results of the survey and a property owner petition to the Sun-News in an email.
Seventy percent of the street's residents, or 14 property owners, opposed the name change, Nichols said, and none selected an alternative name from a list of suggestions in the survey which were derived from geographic locations in the Organ Mountains, such as Razorback, Rabbit Ears and Wildcat.
The only other way the name could change would be if the city could prove the change would "benefit the City from a public safety aspect," allowing it to waive the need for public consent. But Nichols said that won't apply.
Term perpetuates sexist, racist legacy
The word "squaw" is generally thought to have been derived from the Algonquin language, with a neutral meaning that became demeaning, misogynistic and derogatory as white settlers continued to use it.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous woman to lead a Cabinet agency, has formally labeled the term a slur and has directed the federal government to rid the word from geographic features on federal lands. Haaland's actions do not affect the city, which can decide for itself about its use of the term.
"There's definitely a lot of precedent … for Indigenous communities working with municipalities on these types of renaming efforts," said Mia Montoya Hammersley, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and a member of the Piro-Manso-Tiwa tribe.
A full report on the proposed change and results of the survey will be presented to city councilors Feb. 14, Communications Director Mandy Guss said.
Chantelle Yazzie-Martin, a mental health provider, artist and activist for Indigenous issues who lives in Las Cruces, said the term perpetuates the hypersexualization of Indigenous women and has been harmful long before Haaland's official designation.
"It's been around for a long time, (Haaland) just took the initiative to make it a national issue," said Yazzie-Martin, a member of the Navajo Nation.
Donald Pepion, an anthropology professor at New Mexico State University who teaches Native American studies, said Native Americans have been historically marginalized and their voices have been suppressed, but that's been changing.
"We never had a voice. Native people couldn't speak out," Pepion said. "We now have the leadership (in Haaland) who is in a position of authority that can point these kinds of things out."
Pepion, a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, said the term has been used to imply an Indigenous woman is "less intelligent" and "dirty."
For those who want to understand the term's offensive uses, Yazzie-Martin pointed to Halloween costumes and pornography which flaunt the harmful term.
"And that is a direct result of the connotation with it being negative, through media and Hollywood and over time the non-natives changing the definition or connotation of it without our permission," Yazzie-Martin said.
"There are these kinds of pejorative terms in our overall culture that are offensive and derogatory," Pepion said. "But because we've been using it for so long, we think that it's okay."
"We're very proud. We're very strong as Indigenous women," Yazzie-Martin said. "But we can't do that because we are fighting these implications all the time about being dirty or easy, or given these sexist and derogatory terms."
Kayla Myers, a social studies teacher at Alma d’arte Charter High School in Las Cruces who holds a master's degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in Native American studies, said the word contributes to both the oversexualization and violence Indigenous women face.
"By having that as a name on a road in our community is really sad and really concerning," Myers said. "There's not really anything to debate for me … The neighborhood should have a beautiful name. It's a beautiful place."
Myers, who also said she had previously worked at a domestic violence shelter as a cultural contact for Indigenous women fleeing violence, said New Mexico's high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women should also persuade residents to want it changed.
"The way that we talk about women is important, the words we use." Myers said. "Because it's showing if their lives are important to us or not. When we have place names in our community, like 'squaw,' it's showing that Indigenous lives don't matter here."
"The use of this word represents a very traumatic history … that continues to this day," Montoya Hammersley said.
Residents say they oppose change
Several residents who spoke with the Sun-News denied the word's offensive nature.
Norma Placchi, 86, who's lived on the street for two decades, said she saw nothing wrong with the word.
"I never gave a thought to the name 'Squaw Mountain.' In fact, I thought it had a nice ring," Placchi, the secretary of the Northeast Foothills Neighborhood Association, wrote in a statement. "Why should a city councilor have more say in the name of a street than the residents?"
Jerry Ogledzinski, a retired military veteran who's lived on the street for 27 years, said he considered the word neutral, though he admitted it can be derogatory if used in certain contexts. Still, the 82-year-old said he told the city he opposed the name change in its online survey.
"I'm a Western movie buff … and I've heard the term 'squaw,' I don't know how many times," Ogledzinski said. "And to me it wasn't derogatory."
Barbara Hart is a retired New Mexico State University business manager who's lived on the street for nearly 26 years. She responded to the city's online survey with a firm 'no' to the proposed change, telling the Sun-News she didn't believe the term to be offensive to her knowledge.
"Apparently our city councilors don't have anything better to do," said Hart, 69. "They don't have anything better to do, but to literally attack these neighborhoods that have existed for years."
Hart said she also was irritated about the amount of work she would need to do updating her address on various documents and with services she uses if the name was changed.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Name change looks unlikely for Las Cruces street with Indigenous slur