Facebook Twitter

Provo explores renaming Squaw Peak but hasn’t agreed on new moniker

SHARE Provo explores renaming Squaw Peak but hasn’t agreed on new moniker

PROVO — Chauma Jansen didn’t know the name of the mountain peak looming over BYU until she walked on campus. And every time someone said, “I went hiking at Squaw Peak this weekend,” she cringed.

As a Sioux, Assiniboine and Navajo woman raised in Kamas, Jansen didn't hear the name of a popular hiking destination. Instead, she recalled the stories of Native American women’s pain and murder at the hands of white settlers.

“It just brings up a lot of those feelings and a lot of those traumas that history kind of has forgotten about or it’s not really taught,” she said of hearing the name.

Now, Jansen is part of a movement to change the mountain’s name to something that honors history and Native American women. Working with a committee appointed by the Provo City Mayor’s Office, Jansen and the other members are working with the Ute tribe to come up with a replacement name and hold a public meeting on their decision in November.


Squaw Peak in Provo is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The proposal will then be submitted to federal and state officials who don't take name changes lightly, carefully mulling over proposals to ensure procedures have been followed and standards met.

Provo's deliberation over Squaw Peak comes in the wake of a national debate over the removal of Civil War monuments, where one side argues the monuments represent racism, while the other side argues they preserve history and honor those who fought. But the public business of removing monuments and changing landmark names rarely satisfies both staying true to history and sensitivity to those who've suffered or hold tight to tradition.

Provo and Squaw Peak

Earlier this year, Provo Mayor John Curtis announced he had appointed a committee to change the name of Squaw Peak. The panel has been researching the proposal process and the history of the landmark, as well as gathering opinions about the change and speaking with the Ute Tribe about a replacement name.

There are various legends around how Squaw Peak got its name, but the common thread that runs through them all was a Native American woman died when she fell (or jumped) off the mountain. According to John Van Cott's “Utah Place Names,” the woman died during a battle with white settlers in 1850, and thus the settlers called the mountain “Squaw Peak,” since “squaw” was a word commonly used by whites to refer to Native American women.

Jennifer Runyon, a research staffer for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said the name was used for United States Geological Survey maps in 1948 but may have been used locally for years before.

But who named Squaw Peak and when is not as controversial as the name itself, which has been an issue for contemporary Native Americans for decades.

In a 1997 letter to the editor of News from Indian Country, Ives Goddard, curator emeritus in the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, said the term “squaw” comes from the Algonquian family of languages, meaning “woman.” While Goddard doesn't disagree that the term is offensive, he said claims that the word was a disparaging description of female anatomy don't square with historical accounts of its usage.

Even Native Americans are at odds over the term's origins and meaning.

Larry Cesspooch, a Ute Tribe elder and spiritual leader, said “squaw” means concubine and comes from French mountain men to describe the Native American women who “hung around the fort.”

“That’s offensive to all native people, when you use that word ‘squaw,’” he said.

But Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian and historical consultant, contends modern activists have twisted the word from its original meaning of “woman.”

“I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over,” Bruchac was quoted saying in a March 23 Indian Country Today article that noted she received death threats for her opinion.

Provo gets involved

Joshua Sorensen, 41, grew up visiting Provo, where his grandparents lived and parents had grown up. And he saw Squaw Peak as an iconic landmark.

He moved to Provo 20 years ago and is the technical services division manager at the Orem Public Library. He is a vocal activist of sorts often penning emails to City Hall, government agencies, local businesses and even athletes about issues he finds important.


Josh Sorensen, who lives a neighborhood with a view of Squaw Peak in Provo, is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the mid-2000s, he first learned about concerns with the word “squaw,” which eventually prompted him to email Curtis about the name of the prominent mountain peak east of town.

“It’s just a shame that something that’s such a landmark to this city I love has these negative connotations,” Sorensen said. “Even if they’re offensive to some people, it’s offensive to me. It’s offensive to our area that we're not progressive enough to consider the feelings of the indigenous people, of the current people, all of us in the community that we need to be respecting.”

Sorensen and his wife said they heard differing opinions about changing the name when they brought it up with friends, family and others. Dana Sorensen said some Native Americans she spoke with said they saw the name of the mountain as a tribute, but most said it was offensive.

When Josh Sorensen brought up the issue with his mother, she argued that “Squaw Peak” was part of her heritage, and began to tear up. Sorensen said he responded, “Whose precedence takes precedence over whose?”


Josh Sorensen, who lives a neighborhood with a view of Squaw Peak in Provo, is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Although the mayor didn't respond to Sorensen, the email apparently caught his attention and he asked his former media specialist Courtney Kendrick to research the word “squaw,” Kendrick said. She found a consensus among Native Americans in the community that the term was offensive enough to form a committee to propose a change.

Jansen said she heard about the committee from a friend and was asked to join. She decided to do so because she didnt want her daughters to think of Provo in a negative way.

“They’re becoming aware of their identity as far as being Native American women,” Jansen said. “I feel I have some responsibility to speak up and say something.”

The committee hopes to rename the peak after a Native American woman and has asked for suggestions from the Ute Tribe. Terrence Wride, who's completing a Native American studies minor at BYU, has been helping gather the necessary information to submit for a proposal for a new name, which federal guidelines say must have a historical and cultural connection to the location.

“This project is all about celebrating and honoring the Native American women in this valley by changing the name of the peak from something denigrating and offensive to something respectful and honorary,” Wride said.


Squaw Peak in Provo is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Provo name-changing committee will present their research to the Ute business council on Nov. 1 and ask the tribe to propose a replacement name. The tribe didn't return calls for comment. The Provo committee plans on holding a town-hall meeting about the name change the second week of November, during Native American Heritage Month.

The committee hopes to submit a proposed name in time for the Utah State Committee on Geographic Names' first quarter meeting on Feb. 1, 2018. The state committee would send its recommendation to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for a final decision.

Philosophical underpinnings

Compared to the South, where the removal of Confederate monuments has set off violent confrontations and prompted some cities to remove them under cover of darkness, opposition to changing the name of an iconic peak in Provo appears to be quiet.

Kendrick said there hasn’t yet been any opposition, but she wouldn't be surprised if someone speaks up for keeping the name.

The history of race-related name changes to Utah landmarks is short and mixed. In 2006, a proposal to change a landmark near Brigham City from “Chinamans Arch” to “Chinese Arch” sailed through the process without opposition. But a 2017 request to rename Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon in Grand County has run up against some unexpected opposition.

The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission and the NAACP Tri-State Conference opposed the name change because they wish to preserve history and reflect the racial attitudes of the past. And the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission believes removing the offensive term would incorrectly show that Utah has “progressed to a place where such flagrant insensitivity is no longer tolerated or acceptable in our community,” according to the Moab Times. The state board recommended Negro Bill Canyon not be changed, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will make the final decision Nov. 12.

Many landmarks were named after historical events in a location or reflect the whims of land surveyors who created early maps of the American frontier.

Brenden Rensink, the assistant director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU, said many of the landmarks with race-related names have become offensive as society has become more diverse.


Squaw Peak in Provo is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“These ethnic minority groups or marginalized groups are now more part of the mainstream,” Rensink said. “They have a political voice. Often in the past, they did not.”

The result of the proposal to change the name of Squaw Peak in Provo may determine whether the term is changed on 40 other landmarks in Utah.

Only 15 states have submitted proposals requesting to change geographic names offensive to Native Americans. Since 2001, 104 proposals came from Oregon — the highest number — followed by 81 proposals from Montana and 32 proposals from South Dakota. The U.S. board's database doesn't say whether the proposals were accepted or rejected.

“I don’t see a good reason to not change names if we still have an ability to maintain the historical memory of a certain place,” Rensink said. “I don’t understand necessarily the resistance against finding more acceptable names.”