Flathead County Harbors Last Derogatory Place-Names in Montana

Despite Montana’s decades-long campaign to rid landmarks of the word ‘squaw,’ two remain as Interior Secretary creates task force to remove the offensive word from federal place names

By Micah Drew
Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley, pictured at Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam on Aug. 12, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In 1999, the Montana Legislature enacted a law, H.B. 412, requiring state agencies that own or manage public land to rename any sites or geographic locations that contain the derogatory word “squaw.”

By doing so, Montana became the second state, after Minnesota, to enact legislation to remove the offensive word from state landmarks 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 expunge the racial slur from the names of two locations, both in Flathead County.

On Nov. 19, Interior 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 racially charged pejoratives that have been comprehensively replaced over the years by the Board on Geographic Names (BGN), the federal entity that bears responsibility for decreeing official place names.

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a press release. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”

Under Secretarial Order 3404, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will develop a list of locations and offer a list of replacement names to the newly created Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force comprising representatives of various Interior agencies.

In addition, a companion order creates a federal advisory committee to broadly solicit, review and recommend changes to derogatory geographic and federal land unit names. The two orders are likely to accelerate a process that can be lengthy as BGN requires proponents of a name change to identify an offensive name and suggest a replacement on a case-by-base basis.

“I don’t really understand why the process takes as long as it does,” said Vernon Finley, director of the Kootenai Culture Committee (KCC) and former chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Finley noted that the timeline for a simple name change has now been drawn out longer than the negotiations to approve the CSKT Water Compact, which was a far more robust process including a $2 billion price tag.

“For that to get all the way through approval was about a similar timeframe as it takes to get approval for a simple name change of a derogatory term that I’m sure nobody is in support of keeping,” he said. “It certainly can be streamlined.”

According to a USGS database, Montana at one point included more than 70 places bearing a federally recognized name that contained the word “squaw.” In 2009, Jennifer Perez Cole, Indian Affairs Coordinator under Gov. Brian Schweitzer, helped celebrate the completion of the H.B. 412 process at an event marking the replacement of the offensive names. It was noted at the time that while most of the name changes were official, a few were still working through the process, including the two in the 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 remained unchanged despite the statewide push to eradicate the term. Squaw Meadows and Squaw Meadows Creek are two of three offensive names identified in Flathead County through the H.B. 412 process as early as 2002 — although the legislative measure applied only to state-managed lands, many federal agencies and private landowners collaborated on the effort.

In 2008, a lake in the Jewel Basin hiking area known as Squaw Lake was redesignated as In-thlam-keh Lake after a proposal submitted by the CSKT, although some hiking maps of the area have not been changed. In-thlam-keh is an Anglicization of the Salish word for black bear.

Gerry Daumiller, a retired GIS specialist with the state of Montana, served as the geographic names advisor with the Montana State Library from 2009 until 2016, serving as the go-between for the state and the BGN when name changes were proposed. Daumiller was involved with 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 undergo, the changes never made it to BGN.

In 2009 and 2010, respectively, the CSKT and the state name change committee sent separate letters of support to BGN proposing new names for the remaining two derogatorily named geographic features. The Tribes proposed the names “Kakq’ukpayli’it ‘Akaq’la’hal” and “Kakq’ukpayli’it Aknuxu’nuk,” Kootenai words that translate to “Peaceful Meadows” and “Peaceful Creek.”

The first hiccup in the process came from a typeface discrepancy in the two letters — the CSKT letter included handwritten marks in the names that could not be directly displayed in “standard Roman orthography,” which BGN took issue with.

A letter from BGN to the state’s H.B. 412 advisory committee asked what to do about the proposal, but according to Daumiller, there was a break in the communication chain that lasted for years, until he tried to take up the issue in 2013, and then again in 2015.

Daniel Stiffarm, former director of the 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 replace them with the names “Lefthand Creek” and “Lefthand Meadow.”

The name honors siblings Basil, Mary and Alex Lefthand who were known for their cultural knowledge of the Little Bitterroot region. Stiffarm wrote that the names would recognize “efforts to continue teaching Kootenai Culture, language preservation, Treaty Rights and Tribal Government.” Alex Lefthand, who died in 1996, was a logger and construction worker who spent his retirement as a dedicated consultant, sharing his knowledge of the Kootenai traditional and spiritual way of life, making many oral recordings in his native language of the history passed down to him from his elders.

Before his retirement in December 2016, Daumiller made some last efforts to gain approval, but was unable to finalize the process — something he would like to see through. 

Finley, the current KCC director, said he was unaware of the Lefthand proposals, or that they remained in limbo, adding that it’s challenging for the committee to track what should have been a simple name change through the bureaucratic delays. However, he expressed an interest in seeing the process through now that it was part of the national conversation.

“When the process is publicized that this name is being changed from “squaw” to whatever, because it’s derogatory to Native Americans, that act in itself calls attention for the general public to think that using derogatory names isn’t an acceptable thing,” Finley said.

“The images of Native Americans have always been a bit of an issue, and always been presented like we aren’t real people,” Finley added. “Place names are just a similar reflection of [sports mascots], it’s another step that needs to be taken.”

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