Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

March 19, 2009

Renaming Montana’s “S-word” Places

U.S. approves majority of proposed Salish-Pend d’Oreille placenames

CSKT to appeal government’s denial of some names
Nk͏ʷƛ̓lex͏ʷncú (Pulling Oneself from the Ground, or Sam Resurrection) (1857-1941) along Thompson River near Thompson Falls, c. 1915. Photo #94-48 courtesy of the Morton J. Elrod Collections, K. Ross Toole Archives, Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana.
Pulling Oneself from the Ground, or Sam Resurrection, (1857-1941) along Thompson River near Thompson Falls, c. 1915. Photo #94-48 courtesy of the Morton J. Elrod Collections, K. Ross Toole Archives, Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana.

A dream realized
The cultural flavor of Montana’s geography is about to undergo a dramatic change.

For the past century, some 75 placenames across the state have contained the term “squaw,” a word deeply offensive to many people in Montana, especially the members of Montana’s seven federally recognized tribal nations. Scattered across the state, names such as “s-word” creek, “s-word” peak, “s-word” hollow, and even “s-word” tit or teat have stood as a constant affront to native women - and all opposed to this kind of racist and sexist nomenclature.

Now, after almost a decade of work, 60 of the 76 “s-word” places have been replaced by new names. Four others (mostly names of abandoned mines and schools) no longer exist or were eliminated. New names have been proposed for the remaining 12, and are in the process of being considered for official approval by the Board of Geographic Names.

Click here to view the new place names (PDF 279KB)

As Tribal Chairman James Steele, Jr., has said, “Throughout our tribes’ histories, we have always honored our moms, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and daughters. The s-word attacks the importance of the women in native society. The s-word is a degrading term that has no place in our society, and it is in direct opposition to native society. The replacement of these names is important for the CSKT because it corrects that assault on the dignity of the women of our tribes.”

The BGN, based in Washington, D.C., is the division of the U.S. Geological Survey established in 1890 (and strengthened by law in 1947) and charged with establishing standardized names for all named places in the US. Names that are approved by the BGN appear on all maps produced by federal, state, or local governments.

Included among the new names in Montana are at least 17 put forward by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes through the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee. Reaching from Sanders County in the west to Sweetgrass County in the east, each of the 17 names includes anglicized Salish words. In many cases, they are based on ancient placenames documented through the Committee’s Salish-Pend d’Oreille Ethno-geography Project. In ways not seen since the establishment of the state, the Salish language will be present again across much of Montana’s landscape -- on maps and signs seen and used by all citizens and in the conduct of official business.

However, the BGN also denied 10 of the names submitted by the CSKT, and one more is still pending. In addition, the HB 412 Committee and the BGN are awaiting names for two other places, which are to be submitted by the Kootenai Culture Committee.

A Long and Difficult Process

The renaming of the “s-word” places is a lesson in how social change is usually accomplished through long, tenacious, often tedious work.

In 1999, after many years of effort, Browning representative (now senator) Carol Juneau (Mandan-Hidatsa) pushed H.B. 412 through the state legislature, mandating the renaming of all “s-word” place names. Signed by Governor Marc Racicot, the law established the all-volunteer H.B. 412 Committee, charged with the complicated mission of replacing all 75 names.

Over the next 10 years, the indefatigable Sen. Juneau led the H.B. 412 Committee in a seemingly endless series of meetings; many of the places involve a mix of private, public, and tribal lands. Names approved by the H.B. 412 Committee were then sent on to the Board of Geographic Names. The BGN then gradually considered the names submitted by the H.B. 412 Committee, as well as names submitted by other organizations, agencies, and individuals. The BGN includes a limited number of proposed names on the docket at each of their meetings, and can return a decision of approval, denial, or deferral for further consideration.

“This is a long overdue step in creating a more just and mutually respectful society in Montana. This is just one of many ways in which we are trying to nurture a climate of better understanding between Indians and non-Indians, and between men and women. It’s a big change, to replace terms of ignorance with terms that reflect the histories and cultures of Montana’s tribes,” commented Tony Incashola, SPCC Director.

The H.B. 412 Committee sought submissions from each of Montana’s tribes, but few had the resources or personnel necessary to work on the issue. Over the years, the CSKT Tribal Council designated people, including Arleen Adams, to represent the Tribes on the issue on a volunteer basis.

The job was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Fortunately, the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee has been working for years on a systematic compilation of tribal geographic information, and beginning in 2001, the Committee was able to help the effort in a more regular way.

Ms. Adams and Committee staff met several times with the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Elders Advisory Council to review the issue, reaching decisions on five of the “s-word” places. Then, from about 2005 to 2007, SPCC staff convened the elders many more times to reach consensus on 23 more names, for a total of 28.

The staff and elders first determined which places were located within Salish-Pend d’Oreille aboriginal territory and had not already been renamed. Then they reviewed some 500 traditional tribal placenames documented through the SPCC Ethno-geography Project; where an “s-word” name was in the vicinity of one of the tribal names, the group usually proposed a new name based on the traditional name.

Where traditional placenames were no longer known in the vicinity of the s-word, the group arrived at a name based either on tribal history and tradition or on an important traditional resource found in the area. A number of these places were located east of the Continental Divide, in areas to which other tribes also have a connection.

The CSKT communicated to the H.B. 412 Committee that it was by no means claiming that other tribes did not also have a relationship with these places, but since no names had been proposed for those places some eight years after passage of H.B. 412, it was important for a proposed name to be submitted from one of the tribal nations.

By 2007, the BGN had already approved one of the names that Ms. Adams had helped submit in 2003 -- Ch-pa-aqn, meaning Gray-Colored Peak, for the former “S-word” Peak on the Reservation Divide between Valley Creek and Ninemile. The U.S. Forest Service then changed the name of “S-word” Peak Trail to Ch-pa-aqn Trail through administrative action.

In June 2007, the SPCC presented to the Tribal Council an additional 26 Salish-Pend d’Oreille names, and documentation of the substantial research and review behind each of them. CSKT Chairman James Steele, Jr. officially submitted the proposed names to the H.B. 412 Committee and the BGN on July 3.

Since then, the BGN has been gradually working its way through the proposed names. The BGN usually approved CSKT names in cases where the county commissioners and all landowners -- in most cases, either the U.S. Forest Service or private landowners -- agreed or raised no objections. In 10 cases where one or more of these entities opposed the CSKT proposal, the BGN denied the Salish-Pend d’Oreille name and decided in favor of the competing name.

The CSKT Tribal Council, with support and guidance from the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Elders Advisory Council and Culture Committee, will soon be sending an appeal to the BGN of their decisions to reject the proposed CSKT names, based on a number of grounds, including the intent of the HB 412 law, the BGN’s own stated preference to not intervene unilaterally when local parties are not in agreement on a name, the trust responsibility of federal agencies who own the land on which some of the places are located or who played a role in the BGN process, and federal guidelines for proper consultation with federally recognized tribes. In addition, one name approved by the BGN, Indian Graves Butte, may not be in accord with the directive to protect such places from disclosure under Montana’s Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act.

Shirley Trahan, who serves as the Salish Language Specialist for the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, notes, “Most of the time [the s-word] is used in a demeaning way towards Indian women -- as if to say that we are unclean and shameful.... Indian women should be treated with respect just as any woman should be.... I like the [renaming of these places with tribal names] because of the connections or knowledge that the Salish-Pend d’Oreille people had in those areas.”

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