A legislative committee gave its stamp of approval Monday to a draft bill that seeks to streamline the federal process for changing geographic names in Utah that contain language derogatory to American Indians.
The legislation would allow the state’s Division of Indian Affairs to work with the Utah Committee on Geographic Names to create an application template facilitating the process for Native American tribes or other community members to petition the United States Board on Geographic Names for moniker changes.
“Right now there’s not really a template or an outline of clear instructions or expectations, and so the current system has not been a great process,” said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, the bill’s sponsor, during the Native American Legislative Liaison Committee’s meeting on Monday. “What this legislation does is it gives local control to the areas, municipalities or areas, where they want to make these changes and we are giving them these guidelines on how to do so.”
The draft bill stipulates that the application template must encourage a petitioner to get feedback from one or more tribal governments that are “connected to the geographic location” in which the change is proposed.
The legislation comes amid a nationwide reckoning on monuments, place names and brands considered racist or offensive and as several Utahns work to change the name of Squaw Peak in Provo and other sites in the state that contain the word “squaw.”
Shaina Snyder, a member of the Diné tribe and of the Repeak Committee — an independent group trying to rename the landmark in Provo — told the legislative committee Monday that the word originates with a tribe in the Northeastern United States but is not part of the vocabulary of any of the Indigenous people in the Utah area.
“During the 1800s, the word ‘squaw’ was brought to Utah with westward migration during the mountain man era and the gold rush in California,” she said. “It was used to describe women who were offered as prostitutes during the mountain man rendezvous and later to describe women who worked in prostitution.”
At the time Squaw Peak was named, she said the common usage of the word was negative, associated with women “of ill repute.”
Snyder spoke in favor of Iwamoto’s bill on Monday, arguing that the word “squaw” is not only “derogatory and disrespectful” but also has “negative effects on the current public policy affecting Native American women in Utah” by negatively influencing the way American Indians are seen.
“This is something that we can help change with the passage of Sen. Iwamoto’s legislation,” she said.
Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said there are 56 sites in Utah that contain the word “squaw.”
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names notes on its website that proposals for name changes must have a “compelling reason” and that it discourages alterations “unless necessary.” But the board specifically states that it will consider proposals to change names “considered derogatory or offensive,” recognizing that “names and their meanings evolve, and words that appeared on maps a century or even a few decades ago may no longer be acceptable today.”
The board cautions, however, that “once named, a geographic feature can never be ‘unnamed’” — only changed.
“Geographic names are very often well-established on maps, documents, signs and on websites, and to remove them without a compelling reason may lead to confusion,” the board notes.
When proposing a name change, individuals and organizations are instructed to research the history of the existing name and to provide a replacement that retains its history or geography, if possible.
The board’s most recent “action list” of active community name changes, which was released earlier this month, includes 81 modifications proposed across the United States — including an application to change the names of four features in Duchesne County that contain the word “squaw.”
The petitioner for those changes, who is not named in the document, asks to replace the word “squaw” in Squaw Basin, Squaw Basin Creek, Squaw Lake and Squaw Peak in the High Uintas Wilderness in Ashley National Forest with the word “Native.”
"'Many people in multiple Native American tribes consider ‘squaw’ to be an offensive label' and that replacing the word with ‘Native’ “reminds us of all native peoples, instead of the existing disparaging reference to Native American women,” the board summarized, quoting the application.
The board said the petitioner would defer, however, to tribes that put forward other recommendations for a name change. And he said the word “squaw” should remain if Native American communities strongly support retaining it.
“I defer to Ute, Goshute, and other indigenous peoples in all cases regarding what should be done about these names on their historical lands in the present-day USFS [United States Forest Service]-managed wilderness,” the applicant stated.
Arie Leeflang, a member of the Utah Committee on Geographic Names, noted that the process for changing a name rests with the federal government but said the state’s committee is asked to provide its recommendations on proposed alterations.
“They don’t always follow our recommendations but generally they do,” he said.
One of the most recent high-profile reviews was of Negro Bill Canyon, which the U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted in 2017 to rename to Grandstaff Canyon, saying the race-based moniker in its former name was offensive and citing local support for changing it.
The change was proposed by the Grand County Council, which argued the name Grandstaff is more historically accurate, though it was opposed by several community groups that said the name was not offensive and said changing it would remove the history of the location.
Leeflang said he expects some of the more recent proposals in Utah will be similarly “touchy” but expressed support for “the removal of any derogatory or offensive names” in the state.
Tamara Borchardt-Slayton, chairwoman of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, said Monday that she thought Iwamoto’s bill would ultimately help the state unite and “forge forward” in removing landmarks with offensive histories.
“Names that are classified as derogatory have no place in this current day and age in Utah,” she said. “We can strive to do better.”