In 1999, the Montana Legislature passed a law, HB 412, requiring state agencies that own or manage public land to rename any sites or geographic locations that contain the derogatory word “squaw.”
In doing so, Montana became the second state, after Minnesota, to pass legislation to remove the offensive word from state monuments, including mountains, streams, and buttes. More than two decades later, however, as the federal government convenes a “derogatory geographic names task force” to remove the term from the federal vernacular, Montana has yet to erase the racial insult from the names. from two locations, both in County Flathead.
On November 19, Home Secretary Deb Haaland issued a pair of orders to remove the term from the register, declaring “squaw” a derogatory term and adding it to the list of racist derogations that have been completely replaced over time. years by the Council on Geographical Names (BGN), the federal body responsible for enacting official place names.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a press release. “The lands and waters of our country should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our cultural heritage – not to perpetuate the legacy of oppression. “
Under Secretariat Order 3404, the US Geological Survey (USGS) will develop a list of locations and propose a list of alternate names to the newly created Derogatory Geographical Names Working Group, made up of representatives from various agencies. inside.
In addition, a supplementary ordinance creates a federal advisory committee to seek, examine and generally recommend changes to the derogatory names of geographic and federal territorial units. Both ordinances are likely to speed up a process that can be lengthy, as BGN requires supporters of a name change to identify an offensive name and suggest a replacement on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t really understand why the process is taking so long,” said Vernon Finley, director of the Kootenai Cultural Committee (KCC) and former president of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Finley noted that the timeline for a simple name change has now been longer than negotiations to approve the CSKT Water Compact, which was a much more robust process that included a price tag of $ 2 billion.
“For it to be approved to the end, it took roughly a similar amount of time as it takes to get approval for a simple name change to a derogatory term that I’m sure no one has. is in favor of retention, ”he said. “It can certainly be streamlined. “
According to a USGS database, Montana at one point included more than 70 places with federally recognized names that contained the word “squaw.” In 2009, Jennifer Perez Cole, Indian Affairs Coordinator under Governor Brian Schweitzer, helped celebrate the completion of the HB 412 process at an event marking the replacement of offending names. It was noted at the time that while most of the name changes were official, a few were still working throughout the process, including the two in Flathead Valley.
Squaw Meadows and the adjacent Squaw Meadows Creek lie just west of Griffin Creek Road, north of Marion, in the Flathead National Forest. The names were officially published in 1981 and have remained unchanged despite statewide efforts to eradicate the term. Squaw Meadows and Squaw Meadows Creek are two of three offensive names identified in Flathead County through the HB 412 process as early as 2002 – although the legislation only applied to state-managed land, many agencies federal and private owners have collaborated in this effort.
In 2008, a lake in the Jewel Basin hiking area known as Squaw Lake was renamed In-thlam-keh Lake after a proposal submitted by the CSKT, although some hiking maps of the area did not been modified. In-thlam-keh is an Anglicization of the Salish word for black bear.
Gerry Daumiller, a retired Montana State GIS Specialist, served as a Geographical Names Advisor at the Montana State Library from 2009 to 2016, serving as an intermediary between the state and the BGN when changes names have been proposed. Daumiller has been involved in proposals to rename Squaw Meadows and Squaw Meadows Creek, but said that between a communication breakdown, his retirement and the lengthy bureaucratic process the proposals must go through, the changes were never applied to BGN.
In 2009 and 2010, respectively, the CSKT and the state renaming committee sent separate letters of support to BGN proposing new names for the other two derogatory named geographic entities. The tribes came up with the names “Kakq’ukpayli’it ‘Akaq’la’hal” and “Kakq’ukpayli’it Aknuxu’nuk”, Kootenai words which translate to “Peaceful Meadows” and “Peaceful Creek”.
The first hitch in the process came from a font difference in the two letters – the letter CSKT included handwritten markings in the names that could not be directly displayed in “standard Roman spelling”, with which BGN contested.
A letter from BGN to the state’s HB 412 advisory committee asking what to do about the proposal, but according to Daumiller, there was a break in the chain of communication that lasted for years, until which he’s trying to tackle in 2013 and then again in 2015.
Daniel Stiffarm, former director of KCC, wrote in an email to the state in 2015 that the Roman transliteration of the names would not be acceptable due to potential misinterpretation, and offered to withdraw the proposals and have them withdrawn. replace with the names “Lefthand Creek” and “Prairie de gauche”.
The name honors siblings Basil, Mary and Alex Lefthand who were known for their cultural knowledge of the Little Bitterroot area. Stiffarm wrote that the names would recognize “efforts to continue to teach Kootenai culture, language preservation, treaty rights and tribal government.” Alex Lefthand, who died in 1996, was a lumberjack and construction worker who retired as a dedicated consultant, sharing his knowledge of the traditional and spiritual Kootenai way of life, making numerous oral recordings in his native language of the history passed down to him from his elders.
Before his retirement in December 2016, Daumiller made a few final efforts to gain approval, but was unable to finalize the process – something he would like to see happen.
Finley, the current director of the KCC, said he was unaware of Lefthand’s proposals, or that they remained in limbo, adding that it was difficult for the committee to follow what should have been. a simple name change through bureaucratic delays. However, he expressed interest in seeing the process through now that he was part of the national conversation.
“When the process is announced that this name is being changed from ‘squaw’ to anything, because it is derogatory to Native Americans, that act in itself draws the attention of the general public to the fact that the use of derogatory names is not an acceptable thing, ”says Finley.
“Images of Native Americans have always been a bit of a problem and have always been presented as if we weren’t real people,” Finley added. “Place names are just a similar reflection of [sports mascots], this is another step that must be taken.