Colorado's geographic naming board, under a tight deadline to respond to a federal task force, met Sunday to review dozens of suggestions submitted to rename features with the word “squaw” in the title.
The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which proved Sunday it can move pretty quickly with name changes when facing a deadline, avoided naming things after people, with one notable exception.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland declared the word "squaw" derogatory in November and charged a newly created Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force with coming up with replacements. There are 28 geographic features in Colorado designated for renaming by the federal task force, with a few crossing state boundaries with Oklahoma and Utah.
"Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation's lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression," Haaland said when making the announcement last November.
The names submitted by Coloradans to the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board during the past couple of weeks show that the process for making quick final decisions could be difficult.
That started with 126 public comments with dozens of suggested names for those 28 features. Commissioners in six counties also held public meetings and submitted names for their counties' features. Most of their suggestions made it to final list of recommendations from state board.
The one feature that earned a person's name on Sunday is the first geographic feature to be named after Silas Soule, a captain in the Colorado cavalry who refused to fire upon the Native Americans at Sand Creek. Soule blew the whistle on the 1864 massacre to colleagues in Washington, D.C., leading to an Army investigation and the resignation of territorial governor John Evans. Soule was murdered just a few months later.
Soule’s name is recommended for a creek in Chaffee County.
The public submitted nine suggestions alone for Squaw Mountain in Routt County.
Patrick and Sharon O’Toole of Routt County, whose private land is in the shadow of Squaw Mountain, suggested Petite Teton, which they said was a Sioux tribal name.
In their written comments, the O’Tooles said the Teton Sioux are one of Lakota Sioux branches.
Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, said the board also received comments saying the proposed name – Petite Teton – would be derogatory to Native American women and is considered a pejorative slang for a woman’s breast.
The state board decided to leave that decision to the federal task force or to tribal input.
The federal task force has looked at names from five nearby features, with the intent to pick one of those for the new name. The task force intends to avoid duplicate names or other names that could be considered offensive, and would likely avoid names of people, as well, since it has little time to vet those names, according to Jennifer Runyon from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a liaison to the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board.
The names released by the federal task force on Feb. 22 are under a public comment period: 90 days for tribal governments and 60 days for everyone else.
The deadline for all public comments, including from Colorado's board, is April 24.
Haaland's decision and timeline to rename features with the word "squaw" are being criticized as "rushed."
High Country News reported criticisms recently that said some of the suggested names coming from the federal task force are not suitable replacements, as they may reflect "colonial origins."
Finding a suitable replacement isn’t as simple as just removing the slur, according to Sara Palmer, chair of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names.
Here's a recap of the state board's action on Sunday:
Squaw Rock in Weld County received three suggestions, including Earthlodge Rock, which Matt Reed, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Pawnee Nation, proposed. Given that the name was proposed by a tribe, the board quickly adopted it.
Squaw Fingers, a rock in Mesa County, got no suggestions from the public. Benavidez suggested that the board adopt Ute Canyon, which was among the five names picked by the federal task force.
Seven separate suggestions came in for Squaw Creek in Summit County. Commissioner Josh Blanchard submitted Nuchu Creek on behalf of the county, one that he said came through public input. It is also a Ute Mountain Ute name, according to Blanchard and Karn Stiegelmeier of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance. She said there are as many as 10 different spellings, but in conversations with all three tribes, they settled on Nuchu. That name was adopted by the board.
Eagle County’s Squaw Creek got the most public comments, at 35, for 18 separate names. The Eagle County Historical Society was among several entities that submitted Fenno Creek, but Benavidez suggested Colorow Creek, which was sent in by the Sierra Club, and the board adopted that name.
Dolores County commissioners sent in names, after holding public meetings, for Squaw Canyon and Squaw Point, which are both located in Dolores County. Both would be renamed Sego for a local lily. Those geographic features, however, cross into Utah, so whether those names would win approval from that state’s geographic names committee is unclear.
Hinsdale County has four features — a pass, two creeks and a lake — that are targeted for renaming, and Tim Mauck, the board chair, said the county commissioners “took issue” with one of the names proposed by the federal task force – antelope – since the area has never been home to antelope.
For the creek and lake, the commissioners favored the name grizzly; for another creek, they favored Little Spruce. For the lake, however, the board went with Weminuche, a Ute word and one suggested by the federal task force.
Renaming the “little” creek was the only decision during Sunday’s meeting that went to a formal recorded vote. Mauck broke a 4-4 tie vote in turning down Weminuche.
The board then approved Spruce for the “little” creek, and Tabeguache, a Ute name, for the pass.
The board also recommended two canyons that cross from Baca County into Oklahoma to be renamed East and West Pawnee Trail Canyon, based on suggestions by Reed, the Pawnee tribal preservation officer.
Finally, the board adopted Wagon Wheel Pass for the pass in Clear Creek County, based on a recommendation from the county.
However, it's possible that tribal input submitted to the federal task force may affect some of the names recommended by the board. The board generally agrees that tribal input should carry more weight on those recommendations.
Polis has final say on the board’s decisions, after which the state will then submit the recommendations to the federal task force.
Next month, the board will take up one of its most controversial name changes – what to call Mount Evans. The Clear Creek commissioners recently signed off on a change to Mount Blue Sky, one of several historic names for the Northern Arapaho and one suggested by the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.