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Cultural Sensitivity for Native American Names

Guidance for those who would like to honor Native Americans by proposing a geographic name to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names

The following is intended as guidance to prospective proponents who would like to honor Native Americans through the application of a new feature name or feature name change.


What background information do proponents need to be aware of?

The proposal of a geographic name or name change is a serious undertaking.

In proposing a new name intended to honor Native Americans, their language, or culture, the proponent takes on a primary responsibility for selecting a name that is as respectful as possible to the Native American people of that region.

In U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) Policy X: Tribal Geographic Names, the BGN recognizes the autonomy of Tribes to determine names for geographic features located entirely on Tribal Trust lands.

However, for features not on Tribal lands, members of the public, organizations, and other local, State, Tribal, and Federal agencies may propose new names or name changes that the proponent believes will honor a specific Tribe or historic Native American individual(s), or that include words from a Native American language.


What actions are expected of potential proponents?

To ensure that the proposed name is appropriate, the BGN strongly advises proponents to work with Tribal Leaders, Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and/or Native American linguists or other expert(s) associated with the Tribe to determine the acceptability of the proposed name and application. Evidence of this authoritative validation should be provided with the proposal or at any time during the review process.

Proponents should also seek to obtain letters of endorsement from the governments (e.g., Tribal Councils) of any affected Tribes. A proponent's engagement with Tribal leaders may bring to light an alternative name that is more likely to be acceptable to the proponent and the Tribe(s).

Tribal contact information is available through the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal leader directory.


Why might a proposed name not be suitable?

Despite the proponent’s best intentions, there are many reasons why a proposed name may not be approved, including the following:

  • It is not culturally acceptable to name features after a specific Native American person or group
  • The application of the name is inappropriate for the type of feature
  • The application of the name is outside the area associated with the Tribe
  • The word from the Native American language is linguistically incorrect
  • The word from the Native American language has negative connotations or negative associations
  • Multiple Tribes with differing viewpoints may be involved
  • A Tribe may have concerns about changing an existing name or may propose an alternative name


How could this ultimately affect a name proposal?

When working with Tribes, the proponent should respect the authority, time, and priorities of Tribal leaders. The proponent should document any contacts and include that information with the proposal in communications with the BGN staff. Contact information should include the Tribe’s name, the name and title of the contact person(s), phone or email contact information, and the date(s) of the contact.

Obtaining authoritative validation as to the proposal's acceptability is no guarantee that the proposed name or name change will be approved by the BGN, as many factors are considered during the BGN’s review. However, not engaging with Tribe(s) may result in the ultimate rejection of the proposal. Proponents should also be advised that the geographic location may be home to a number of Tribes with differing ideas regarding the appropriateness of a name.

Note: The guidance provided here in no way replaces Tribal outreach covered in BGN Policy X, especially the requirement for Nation-to-Nation consultation.

The BGN, as part of its normal outreach, will provide all federally recognized Tribes with a link to the Quarterly Review List, with an invitation to comment on any proposal in which they have an interest.


Updated March 27, 2023