The Story County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday opted to delay official action on a proposal to rename Squaw Creek, the 42-mile-long tributary of the South Skunk River in central Iowa.
In an application to U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), the proponent Jasmine Martin, of Ames, recommended the name change due to the offensive nature of the term “squaw.”
Historically, the term is considered an ethnic and sexual slur targeted toward indigenous North American women.
“Individuals of Native American descent have protested the name of this stream beginning at least in the 1990s, and it is known that the current name has an offensive connotation,” Martin said in her application seeking to change the name of the creek.
Additionally, Martin suggested the tributary be renamed to Story Creek, after Judge Joseph Story, the namesake of the county.
The board can only make a recommendation to the BGN in support of the proposal, as well as potential naming alternatives.
While all three supervisors expressed a need to change the name, the board will await further input from local Native American groups, before making a decision.
“I lived with this name all my life, I didn't know until very recently what that term meant,” said board chair Linda Murken. “I have no nostalgic need to have that creek continue to be named what it is.”
The first reference of Squaw Creek appeared on United States Geological Survey maps in 1912.
The proposal was filed to the BGN, a federal agency tasked with maintaining geographical naming designations.
The BGN does not consider a name proposal that includes the derogatory word such racial slurs or terms offensive to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.
Since the creek spans through neighboring counties, such as Boone and Hamilton counties, and the city of Ames, the Ames City Council and the Boone and Hamilton County boards of supervisors, and Franklin Township can all take action on the proposal.
The Ames City Council is expected to address the proposal as a future agenda item in the coming weeks.
Throughout the nation, there have been various efforts to remove the term from various designated sites.
In 2004, Montana removed the the term “squaw” from its 76 peaks, creeks, flats, gulches and buttes, and outlawed the term to be used in future designations of land sites.
In Story County, the term squaw is used for the aforementioned tributary, as well as Squaw Creek Drive and Squaw Park, Squaw Valley and Squaw Road.
Supervisors Lisa Heddens said that the name change is “a long time coming,” and recalls legislative efforts to get the name changed, despite the state having no jurisdiction over a name change.
“I think it's great there's another individual who's brought this forth to take it under consideration,” said Heddens.
While there was agreement on reasoning for a name change, the board and county residents floated alternative names for the creek.
“My frustration here is since this has now come to light on our agenda … already there was an application for (changing the name to) Story,” said Supervisor Lauris Olson. “There have been a couple of emails about would be it more appropriate to try and find someone connected with an Native American Tribe from this area?”
David Gradwohl, an emeritus professor with proficient background in Native Indian studies at Iowa State University, said that he's heard various complaints throughout the years from Native American students about the naming of Squaw Creek.
He said previous attempts to file for changing the creek's began circulating in the 1970's, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
“There was not a receptive audience for changing the name,” said Gradwohl. “There were people who said 'we've called it Squaw for ever, so why should we change it?'”
Gradwohl said another effort was made in the 1990s, but was met with resistance among the then-Board of Supervisors.
“It is an appropriate time for Story County to make this change,” Gradwohl said at Tuesday's meeting. “I would like to suggest a name that would honor the Native Americans who occupied this state, and from whom this state was named — the Ioway Indians.”
After a proposal is submitted and opinions from the local governing authorities and natives tribes are received, it is subject to a vote by the BGN board.
“Once all opinions are received and noted in the case brief, the case will be presented to the BGN for a vote,” said Maria McCormick, supervisory cartographer with BGN. “If the vote is to approve the change, the new name will be recorded in the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) and become official for federal use.”
McMormick said a decision could take “several months.”