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Squaw Lake Resists Name Change
By Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio
April 30, 2001
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In the mid-1990s, a group of students from the Cass Lake-Bena High School in northern Minnesota began a campaign to eliminate use of the word "squaw." In 1995, the students convinced the Minnesota Legislature to pass a law eliminating the word from 19 geographic place names in the state. But there still remains one municipality, the tiny town of Squaw Lake on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, that has resisted the change.

Is this sign offensive to you? A debate continues in Squaw Lake over whether to change the town's name.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
WHEN SQUAW LAKE MAYOR ART MERTES isn't tending to city business, he's turning a wrench in his auto shop, one of just a handful of businesses in the town of 139. Mertes and the Squaw Lake City Council are under pressure to change the name of the town. But Mertes says, as far as he's concerned, there's no need.

"The people that live here, the people that I'm representing now, for the most part, don't want the name changed. They feel it's something that's being pushed upon them by a small minority, and for the most part, they don't feel offended by the name," says Mertes.

But there are many people, particularly Native Americans, who do take offense to the word "squaw."

"I feel that word should be removed from all places because it's offensive to Native American women," says Shellda Johnson, a Cass Lake-Bena High School student and member of the Leech Lake Name Change Committee.

Members of the Leech Lake Name Change Committee, (from left to right) Christine Dahl, Nikki Isham, Shellda Johnson, and Roman Brown (kneeling).
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
There are several theories as to the word's origin, but name change committee member Nikki Isham says many experts agree "squaw" is a French corruption of an Iroquois Indian word.

"It means a woman's genitalia. And a lot of people don't think that way. They think Indian women should be honored by that name or something like that. But most of the people don't feel that way. It's derogatory to a lot of people and it offends a lot of people. And we'd like to really change that name," says Isham.

The name change committee has enjoyed broad success. The word "squaw" has been eliminated from geographic place names in other states as well as Minnesota - Maine, Montana and Oklahoma. There are similar efforts underway in Wisconsin, South Dakota and several other states.

When the Minnesota name change law was passed in 1995, the body of water next to the town of Squaw Lake became officially known as "Nature's Lake." But many in the town say the change took place only on paper.

"To us, to anybody that lives here, the lake is still Squaw Lake."
"I never think to say Nature's Lake. I just don't. When I hear that I have to think twice."
"What do I call it up here? Squaw Lake. It's been that way, and it will probably be that way all my life."

Native Americans make up about half the population of Squaw Lake, and some of them want the name changed. But some don't.

Squaw Lake Mayor Art Mertes says most residents of Squaw Lake don't want to change the town's name.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
"Just leave us alone. We're fine. Don't bother," says Vi Bellanger, who's the only Indian on the city council. Bellanger says many of the local Native American residents are proud of the name. She does admit the word "squaw" is not exactly a term of endearment within the culture.

"There are some of us who are going to take offense and probably drop you right in your tracks, or you're going to get a really bad ear beating. When we use that word amongst us, it's a joke...'oh, she's a good squaw,'" says Bellanger.

But name change committee advisor Mike Schmid says use of the word "squaw" over the past 100 years has been mostly derogatory, and it's hurtful to a lot of people.

"You don't hear people say 'a beatiful squaw' or 'a hardworking squaw.' You hear people say 'ugly squaw,' 'fat squaw,' 'drunken squaw.' It's always connected with a negative," says Schmid.

An attempt by the name change committee to force a referendum on the issue in Squaw Lake last November failed because of a lack of valid petition signatures. The students say they'll try again this fall. Meanwhile, the group is trying another approach. It has asked local media to refer to the town only as S. Lake. At least one newspaper has complied.

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