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Insensitive place names such as Squaw Peak may become easier to rename under Utah bill

20171005 Squaw Peak in Provo is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. While people are arguing over the removal of Civil War monuments, a group in Provo is putting together a proposal to change the name of the local mountain.
Squaw Peak in Provo is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Squaw Peak has been a contentious name for years, but state lawmakers, local community activists and Native American voices are joining to try and streamline the process to change geographic names like the one for the familiar peak above Brigham Young University.

SB10 would include the Utah Division of Indian Affairs in the process with the Utah Committee on Geographic Names to more easily submit a name change request of geographic areas that use American Indian-related terms and any places that use the word “squaw.”

The bill singles out squaw for a specific reason.

“It was used to describe women who were offered as prostitutes during mountain man rendezvous and later just to describe women who worked in prostitution outside of military forts,” according to Shaina Snyder, a Diné Navajo and Southern Ute. The word, she said, has no relation to the languages, cultures or dialects of Utah tribes and was never used in relation to women of the tribes. The word came with westward expansion.

The peak near Provo has raised concerns with some local residents.

“We love this mountain. We love this peak. ... We don’t love the name Squaw Peak, which refers to one of the most shameful episodes of the Blackhawk War,” said Eric Davis, with the Rock Canyon Preservation Alliance.

As the legend goes, a chief’s wife fell from the peak and pioneer settlers in Utah County named it “squaw” due to the generalized pairing the word had with native women in the 1850s.

Several Native American representatives spoke in support of the bill in Wednesday’s Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee meeting.

“There’s over 50 different locations in Utah that have a reference to squaw. As a Native American, the word squaw to me is very offensive and derogatory. And not only to me, but to all Native Americans,” said Ed Naranjo, administrator of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation.

“We’ve stopped using the “N” word,” he said. “We need to stop referencing human beings as squaws. It needs to eliminate these landmarks and locations that use the word squaw. You know, we as Native Americans need to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The bill allows for public input from indigenous voices as well as local residents. A name change request can come from a county with the geographic location, by an Indian tribe when the name refers to American Indians, as well as a local community among others.

“I believe the Senate bill on geographic name changes will help better community efforts, like the one I’m associated with, to ... help facilitate the changes of many offensively named sites,” Snyder said.

Whenever a name change is proposed, the Division of Indian Affairs will ensure there is consultation with any tribe to whom the name refers.

The bill does not deal with mascots, the bill’s sponsor made clear.

  • “It came to my attention that this bill is being confused with other efforts on school mascots and names; and it is neither of these,” Senate Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said. “It deals with highlighting a process already in place that makes it more transparent and more accessible.”

The bill also drew the support of a former congressman, who sees it as a good method to follow in an era of “cancel culture.”

“What this good center is doing with (Iwamoto’s) legislation, is trying to say, ‘OK, let’s come up with a process of who should be involved in giving input into the final decision, not necessarily the final decision, but who should be involved,” said former U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee for debate by the full Senate.