NJ brook, lake getting new names as federal government erases the S-word from the map

·6 min read

NORTH HALEDON — A rock-strewn creek that courses from north to south through the borough will be renamed by the federal government under a plan to eliminate pejorative terms from hundreds of national sites.

Squaw Brook is a tributary's tributary — branching off like a fine thread in the immense Passaic River basin — but it was selected as one of two locations in New Jersey in need of a fresh look. The other site, Squaw Lake, is a 16-acre reservoir in the township of Medford.

The Department of the Interior first announced the sweeping changes in November, and in a matter of three months, it unveiled possible replacement names for 660 geographic features known by the "squaw" moniker. The sites include canyons, harbors, mountains, prairies and many other natural wonders across the U.S.

The public has until Monday to add its input to the name changes.

Steven Burton, the chairman of the state Commission on American Indian Affairs, said any name is preferred over Squaw Brook.

"It's no different than the N-word," said Burton, a native of Mahwah and an elder in the Ramapo Munsee Lenape Nation.

Squaw Brook, looking north, behind MetroChurch N.J. on Squaw Brook Road.
Squaw Brook, looking north, behind MetroChurch N.J. on Squaw Brook Road.

According to a statement by the Interior Department, "squaw" is an ethnic and sexist slur, especially for Indigenous women. In the past 20 years, the Board on Geographic Names received 261 proposals to replace names of geographic features that have the word.

At least four states — Maine, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon — have taken their own steps to strip the word from place names. And California, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley Resort, has legislation pending to do the same.

The ski venue, incidentally, changed its name to Palisades Tahoe in September.

Feds have already stopped using the word in anticipation of its changes taking effect. In all official communications on the matter, the government refers to it as "sq___."

"It's foul, and it's typical of what colonials did back in those days," Burton said.

Eileen DeFreece, also a member of the Ramapo nation, took it one step further.

"The academic side of me sees 'squaw' as equal to 'rape,' " said DeFreece, an associate professor of humanities and bilingual studies at Essex County College.

"We all get comfortable with names of places," she added. "But we have to understand where a lot of the discomfort comes from. It's from colonial times — it comes from brutality."

April 20, 2022; North Haledon, NJ, USA; Squaw Brook in North Haledon will be given a new name. The federal government is renaming hundreds of geographic features that include the word "squaw," which was determined by the Department of the Interior to be a derogatory term. A street sign shows the name Squaw Brook Road. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK
April 20, 2022; North Haledon, NJ, USA; Squaw Brook in North Haledon will be given a new name. The federal government is renaming hundreds of geographic features that include the word "squaw," which was determined by the Department of the Interior to be a derogatory term. A street sign shows the name Squaw Brook Road. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK

Local officials, meanwhile, are spilt on the issue.

The Borough Council on Wednesday passed a resolution in protest of any change to the brook's name. Council President Bruce Iacobelli said the Interior Department's plan was another fit of "cancel culture," like the widespread toppling of historic statues in public spaces.

"I'm definitely opposed to all of that," he said. "I have a very strong feeling that our ancestors had certain reasoning and certain wisdom for naming things in the manner in which they did, and I don't think we should change them."

Mayor Randy George offered a different take: "People find it offensive," and "I'm not going to tell them that they're wrong."

Keith Furlong, a spokesman for Passaic County, said officials had not yet discussed changing the name of Squaw Brook Road, which runs from Mountain Avenue in Wyckoff to North Haledon Avenue.

The waterway is also the namesake of Squaw Brook Run, a complex of 64 town houses on Hunter Road North. Totowa-based GEM Property Management Inc., which oversees the development, did not respond to an inquiry about a possible name change.

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'Whole new generation'

The northern tip of Squaw Brook is just east of St. Barsawmo Syriac Orthodox Church in Wyckoff.

It then crosses the Bergen County line and flows south for roughly 7,300 feet — or 1.4 miles — to Molly Ann Brook, a longer and more ferocious stream that eventually dumps into the river in Paterson.

The name change of the brook and all other federal lands will be reflected in a database called the Geographic Names Information System, according to a statement by the U.S. Geological Survey, a bureau within Interior.

Federal agencies rely on that system to publish maps, and private companies, such as Apple Inc., Esri and Google, often use it for their mapping software, though they do not have to.

April 20, 2022; North Haledon, NJ, USA; Squaw Brook in North Haledon will be given a new name. The federal government is renaming hundreds of geographic features that include the word "squaw," which was determined by the Department of the Interior to be a derogatory term. A section of Squaw Brook is shown in Wednesday. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK
April 20, 2022; North Haledon, NJ, USA; Squaw Brook in North Haledon will be given a new name. The federal government is renaming hundreds of geographic features that include the word "squaw," which was determined by the Department of the Interior to be a derogatory term. A section of Squaw Brook is shown in Wednesday. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK

Claire Garland, a retired middle school teacher in Tinton Falls and a lifelong defender of Native American causes, said she believes that the use of "squaw" on a map is just as hurtful as speaking it.

"If it's on a map, it's there," said Garland, the director of the Sand Hill Indian Historical Association in the Lincroft section of Middletown Township. "You read it, and you see it. It's offensive, even if you don't hear it."

As part of the renaming process, the Geological Survey came up with five possible new names for each of the 660 sites. The candidate names were chosen through a search of nearby geographic features.

For Squaw Brook, the candidate names are First Watchung Mountain, Haledon Reservoir, Mount Cecchino, Oldham Pond and Second Watchung Mountain.

The brook will assume one of those non-derogatory modifiers.

For example, it could be Oldham Brook, or it may be forever known as First Watchung Brook.

The decision will rest with the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, a 13-member panel that was established by the Interior Department through its action in the fall. It is composed of representatives of its bureaus and offices, including the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

The task force will review all possible replacement names, including any submitted by the public.

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Then, within the next three months, it will send its proposed changes to the Board on Geographic Names. Final decisions are expected in September.

The Interior Department said the new renaming process has accelerated what would likely have been years — perhaps even decades — of waiting. The Geographic Names board normally acts on a case-by-case basis, it said, and there are several hundred name changes in line.

The broad elimination of "squaw" from the federal database marks the third time that the board has undertaken a comprehensive purge of a derogatory word.

Sign at the entrance to Squaw Brook Run, a complex of town houses at the intersection of Hunter Road North and Squaw Brook Road in North Haledon.
Sign at the entrance to Squaw Brook Run, a complex of town houses at the intersection of Hunter Road North and Squaw Brook Road in North Haledon.

It banned the N-word amid the height of the civil rights movement, and 12 years later a disparaging term for "Japanese."

"Words matter, particularly in our work to make our nation's public lands accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds," said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, of New Mexico, the first Native American to ever serve as a Cabinet secretary.

But such progress, including the highly publicized move by the NFL franchise to change its name — from Redskins to Football Team and, finally, to Commanders — has come very slowly, said Burton, the Ramapo tribal elder.

"We've been complaining about it since the '60s," Burton said. "It's only now that people are coming around and starting to listen."

A "whole new generation" has been responsible for the positive evolution, he said, adding: "They have more sensitivity. Hopefully, it'll make a big difference in the world."

Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: devencentis@northjersey.com

Be part of the process

The Department of the Interior wants feedback on candidate names floated to replace current names of sites that were declared derogatory for the use of "squaw." Visit the Federal Register for instructions on how to share thoughts on the proposed changes.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: North Haledon NJ: Squaw Brook getting new name