HELENA — The time has come to remove the words "halfbreed" and "breed" from the names of creeks, lakes and other places around Montana, according to leaders of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Nicholas Vrooman, who works with the tribe, presented a bill draft to that effect during a recent meeting with the State-Tribal Relations Legislative Committee. The words are racist terms that demean American Indians, he said.
"Using the terms is a way to really denigrate people; place them on lower rung of society," said Vrooman, who said the idea for the bill came out of work with tribal members on the Montana Indian Languages Preservation Pilot Program.
The bill would require state and other agencies to identify places with the terms and remove them from maps, signs and markers when age or vandalism calls for an update. It would also create a volunteer advisory group that would determine replacement names. Under the proposed bill, replacement names would come from the tribe's three traditional, historic languages: Chippewa, Cree and Michif.
Halfbreed Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of 17 places throughout Montana with the word "halfbreed" or "breed" in the name, according to Vrooman's research.
Vrooman said he modeled the bill after one that passed through the Montana Legislature in 1999 to remove the word "squaw" from place names in the state.
That bill, introduced by former state legislator Carol Juneau of Browning, passed after going nowhere in a previous session. On Wednesday, Juneau said, 15 years later, just three of the 76 places with squaw in the name remain unchanged and those are pending.
"I thought it would be pretty darn simple," said Juneau, who is American Indian. "It's really a pretty long process to change a name."
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the interagency panel that approves all names on maps put out by federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. In 1963, it changed all geographic names containing the derogatory form of Negro, and in 1974 it changed all names containing the disparaging form of Japanese.
Juneau said she'd like the board to change all names that use the word squaw, which is seen as a derogatory term for an American Indian woman. Vrooman said he would like to see that for "halfbreed" and "breed" as well and plans to include it in legislation if possible.
Vrooman's next task involves finding a legislator to sponsor the bill and introduce it during the 2015 legislative session, which begins in January.
Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer, R-Superior, who sits on the State-Tribal Relations committee, said whether the bill is introduced by members of that committee or by another legislator, he thinks it will come up in January.
"I'm sure it will have interest," Schwaderer said. "I don't even feel comfortable saying some of these names."
Juneau said the name changes are good for Montana and that she supports the latest initiative.
"'Halfbreed' and 'breed' is just really used in the same derogatory way 'squaw' was used to identify people," she said. "I think (the bill) is a good idea, and I'm glad to see the Little Shell people taking this up."
The bill comes as the Washington Redskins continue to face a barrage of criticism for having a name that is seen as offensive to Native Americans.