HELENA, Mont. - In accordance with a new state law enacted by the 1999 Legislature, the word "squaw" is slowly disappearing from Montana's mountains, streams and byways.
House Bill 412, sponsored by Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, and approved by Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, requires state agencies to identify all geographic features that contain the word on state-controlled lands and change the names on all maps, signs and markers as quickly as possible.
A 12-member advisory committee, with Juneau as chairwoman, was created to conduct research, solicit public input, and recommend changes to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in Washington, D.C. The board forwards its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Interior for final approval.
Many Native peoples consider "squaw" to be a derogatory word demeaning to women. Efforts to eradicate the name from public places are also underway in Maine, Idaho and Oregon. It took two tries in the Montana Legislature to get the new law passed.
HB 412 ran into rough waters in the Montana Senate last spring when Republicans Bob Keenan of Bigfork and Jack Wells of Bozeman, among other non-Indian law makers, dismissed it as being too politically correct.
Wells suggested the famous Bootlegger Trail should perhaps get a new handle too, because it describes something illegal. He even suggested that maybe his wife, Mary Gay, should change part of her name because some people find "gay" offensive.
"Are we going to change Broad Street?," Keenan added. "How about Drunken Irish Lane?" "It's sensitivity gone amok."
A measure similar to HB 412 was introduced in the 1997 Legislature by former Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, but it attracted some of the same arguments and died before passage.
According to Juneau, 74 sites on state, federal and private land in Montana have "squaw" in their place names. While the new law technically only covers state-controlled property, private landowners and federal agencies, especially the U.S. Forest Service, also are cooperating, Juneau said. She expects it will take about two years to complete the project.
"It's a time-consuming process," she observed.
The committee has approved two name changes so far - Wakina" Sky Gulch near Helena and Dancing Lady Mountain in Glacier National Park. However, the Glacier Park proposal ran into opposition from some Blackfeet tribal members, and Juneau said the committees recommendation will be reviewed again. The latest proposal for the site, east of Browning, is Lone Woman Peak, she said.
At its May meeting, the advisory committee will consider name changes for the Flathead Indian Reservation's Squaw Peak, as well as two sites on the Kootenai National Forest, said Lucy Vanderberg, education director at the Salish and Kootenai People's Center in Pablo and a member of the state panel.
In an interview, Vanderberg said that Salish and Kootenai elders and the Tribal Council are being consulted about the proposed changes. So far, she said, the consensus is that Squaw Peak, which also lies within the Lolo National Forest, should be renamed Sleeping Woman Mountain. Proposed name changes for the Kootenai National Forest sites have not yet been released.
During a March 10 meeting in Helena, the advisory committee
was unable to agree on a name change for a site on private land in Hill County, which includes part of the Rocky Boy's Reservation. The landowner, Juneau said, wants the place called Sioux Butte, but a tribal preservation group would like to see it named Indian Woman Butte. She said the committee will try to broker a compromise in coming weeks.
Along with Juneau and Vanderberg, the panel includes Rep.
Carol Williams, D-Missoula, vice chairwoman, Patricia Iron Cloud of the Fort Peck Tribes; Henrietta Mann of the University of Montana's Department of Native American Studies; UM graduate student Scott Carlson; Geno Bissette from the U.S. Forest Service; Helena resident Lannie Deserly; Donald Howard of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; Connie Mayer of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Timothy McCleary of Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation; and Susan Reevis-Weber from the Blackfeet Tribe.
The committee plans to continue meeting every other month until its tasks are completed.
The process for changing the place names requires a series of steps, Juneau explained.
Tribal members and other citizens of Montana are invited to submit recommendations to the committee, but it is advised that local support be gathered first.
In a new handbook being distributed across the state, the committee suggests that tribal and local governments be asked to provide letters of recommendation, and that proponents conduct public education campaigns in their communities to help get everyone on the same track. The next step, she said, is to formally submit name proposals through Montana Indian affairs coordinator Louie Clayborn in Helena.
Juneau cautions that not just any new name will be accepted. A primary factor, she said, is whether the proposed name is derived from Native American languages and traditions. While historical usage and local names will be considered, the committee will not use any name "considered to be derogatory to any racial, ethnic or religious group," the handbook states.
"This also applies to names considered to be obscene or blasphemous in the present-day cultural context," the document says.
Juneau said the committee will not rename a site in commemoration of a living person, and that no personal commemoration will be considered unless the person has been dead at least five years. Even then, the person or family should be directly associated with the feature being named or should have made "significant contribution" to the state or surrounding area, the handbook says.
Juneau said shes already learned a lot during the process, but has been especially surprised that more people aren't getting involved in the name changing.
"I thought there'd be more local groups chomping at the bit," she said. "It should be a local change process, whether it be county commissioners, tribal councils or other groups that get involved." While the remaining sites are spread all across Montana, most are located in the western third of the state.