Committee to mull “What’s in a name?” 

Thanks to the efforts of tribal leaders and the 1999 Legislature, the word “squaw” is slowly disappearing from the state’s streams, mountains and byways.

House Bill 412, sponsored by Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning), and signed by Gov. Marc Racicot, requires that state agencies identify all geographic features on state-controlled lands that contain the word, which many American Indians contend is derogatory. An advisory committee was formed to develop replacement names and forward recommendations to the federal Board of Geographic Names in Washington, D.C., which will have the final say.

According to Juneau, 74 state-owned sites include “squaw” in their names. The committee has approved one name change so far—on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation—and will consider four other sites when it convenes again March 10 in Helena. Up for immediate consideration are two more Blackfeet Reservation landmarks, as well as two in Hill County. Most of the remaining sites are in Western Montana.

Once the proposed name changes are approved, state agencies will be required to eventually remove the word from all maps, signs and markers. Federal agencies in Montana, even though not covered by the new state law, have vowed to review their place names and recommend changes, as well. Lolo National Forest’s Squaw Peak, visible from Missoula, may soon be known as Sleeping Woman Mountain if the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have their way.

Juneau and other tribal leaders so dislike the word “squaw” that HB 412 was dubbed the “S” bill during the legislative session. The term, which is apparently derived and contorted from an Algonquin Indian word, is considered slang for female genitalia. It also describes “an old, dirty woman,” she says.

“Would you like to have a place you look up to and respect be called ‘vagina’?” Juneau told fellow lawmakers last year before her bill was approved. HB 412 ran into rough waters in the Montana Senate, where Republicans Bob Keenan of Bigfork and Jack Wells of Bozeman dismissed it as being too politically correct.

Wells suggested that the famous Bootlegger Trail should perhaps get a new handle too, because it describes something illegal. He even suggested that maybe his wife, Mary Gay, should change part of her name because some people find “gay” offensive.

“Are we going to change Broad Street?,” Keenan added. “How about Drunken Irish Lane? It’s sensitivity gone amok.”

A measure similar to HB 412 was introduced in the 1997 Legislature by former Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, but it died before passage.

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