By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Utah's Rainbow Bridge in Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah - Credit: National Science Founcation

Utah’s Rainbow Bridge in Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah – Credit: National Science Founcation

America has numerous federally-recognized geographic places with historical names.  While many of these places are associated with admired and honorable figures in America’s history, there are others that have been given questionable or offensive labels that include “racial or sexual slurs and stereotype Native American, African Americans, and others.” In order to improve the process for reviewing and revising offensive names, members of the 116th Congress introduced a bill named The Reconciliation in Place Names ActNow a few months into the 117th Congress, the bill has been reintroduced again in a similar form.

The Reconciliation in Place Names Act was first introduced by then-Representative and current Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (D-NM-1) in the 116th Congress and was cosponsored by Congressman Al Green (D-TX-9).  On July 16th, Congressman Green alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) reintroduced the bill (H.R. 4454/S. 2400) to the 117th Congress. Currently, 25 House members cosponsor the bill, along with at least six Senators.  GSA, along with other organizations such as The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Hispanic Access Foundation, and American Association for Geographers, have already endorsed the Act. 

In a Dear Colleague letter, Congressman Green stated that in 2015 there were 1441 federally-recognized places with questionable names, with many more likely now identified.  He continued, “Currently, the United States Board on Geographic Names oversees all naming processes and decisions. While Board policies authorize changing the names of offensive geographic features, the current process is time-consuming, lacks transparency and public involvement, and is ill- equipped to address the vast nature of the problem.”

This bill would create an advisory committee to recommend federal land unit name changes to the Board of Geographic Names.  This committee, deemed the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names, would have to be created and filled within 180 days of the bill passing and becoming law.  The committee will have 16 members: 4 from an Indian Tribe, 1 representing a tribal organization, 4 with backgrounds in civil rights or race relations, 4 with expertise in anthropology, cultural studies, geography, or history, and 3 representing members of the general public. They will review name-change proposals from Indian tribes, state and local governments, and the public, and provide opportunities for public engagement and comment on the newly proposed names. They will also provide name change recommendations to both the Board of Geographic Names and Congress. The bill calls for the committee to fulfill their duties within 5 years of it becoming law.  According to the bill, the Board of Geographic Names would accept or reject the committee’s name recommendation within 3 years after receiving it.

GSA “vigorously and proactively rejects prejudice and stereotyping wherever it is encountered in our profession” and is “dedicated to enacting codes of conduct that include demonstrating respect for others.”  These ideals are core to GSA’s values, and are extensively described in its Diversity in the Geosciences Community position statement. As such, GSA firmly endorses The Reconciliation in Place Names Act and will continue to monitor its progress within the 117th Congress.