Squaw Peak name change highlights sexual violence against Native American women

Because of recent approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, Provo’s Squaw Peak is now Kyhv Peak. The mountain’s former name has been criticized for containing a derogatory term for Native American women. (Abigail Gunderson)

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved name changes for more than 600 locations around the country on Sept. 8, including Provo’s Squaw Peak and its recent name change to Kyhv Peak.

The peak, one of the most prominent in the Utah County skyline, underwent the change to abandon a name which has been under fire for its derogatory meaning towards Native American women, and has a lot to do with sexual violence against them.

Utah State Senator Jani Iwamoto said respect for women played a large role in the recent push for the name change. In 2020, Iwamoto sponsored the Place Name Amendments Bill to help facilitate name changes for locations with names considered derogatory towards Native Americans.

Iwamoto began developing the bill when Ed Naranjo, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, sent her a letter decrying the use of the word “squaw” in geographic location names. Iwamoto said Naranjo, who has several daughters, was passionate about changing the narrative surrounding Native American women.

When it comes to promoting change, Dustin Jansen, the Utah Division Director of Indian Affairs, said changing a narrative starts with changing language.

“How you see people determines how you treat people,” Jansen said. He paraphrased Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, who said public perception influences public policy. With that frame of mind, Jansen said derogatory names will promote derogatory treatment.

Iwamoto said although the word’s origins are unclear, squaw has come to mean “prostitute” or “promiscuous” — this is the negative narrative both Jansen and Iwamoto said is important to change.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2017, 43.7% of Native American women reported being raped in their lifetime. More than half reported some kind of unwanted sexual contact at some point in their lives.

“When we relate those higher rates of sexual and domestic violence that Native Americans suffer,” Jansen said,”words like ‘squaw’ that are being replaced across the country, those names like that perpetuate, you know, that negative look on Native women.”

For Jansen, the name change has personal effects.

“As a Native American man who’s married to a Native American woman with four Native American children, two of which are girls, I support it,” he said.

Micah Wimmer, the treasurer of BYU’s Tribe of Many Feathers Club, said changing location names is a way to put Native American history back in the hands of Native Americans.

“For a lot of these places that are, like, of Native origin, a lot of, like, the new names that are derogatory also kind of sought to erase the history behind these places,” Wimmer said. “So that’s why I think it’s important that some of these name changes are occurring.”

Changing things like place names or sports mascots has been met with some opposition. Jansen noted that many people are used to calling the mountain Squaw Peak and may have a hard time changing.

“The peak’s still there. The peak’s still open to people,” he said. “Whatever name you’re used to calling that shouldn’t have a whole lot of effect on your connection to that.”

Wimmer said he likes to remind people no matter what they’ve called the mountain their whole lives, it had a different name first.

“At one point, that peak was known by a Native name before it was known as Squaw Peak,” Wimmer said. “At some point someone else changed its name and then brought it into everyday jargon and use.”

Education has to precede change, Wimmer said, especially with such a widespread word as “squaw.”

“If people don’t know that there is any sort of, like, derogatory association, then it’s like, what is the point of changing anything?” he said.

Leah Waldrop, Co-President of Tribe of Many Feathers, said the name change is meaningful to her as a Native American because it shows that people are recognizing Native issues.

She said it shows more people “recognize harmful names or derogatory names, because it hasn’t always been the case.”

For Waldrop, the sudden change came as a welcome surprise.

“This was something I didn’t really think was going to happen, like, as soon as it did,” she said. “I’m really happy about it.”

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