Citing just one reservation, Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday greenlit changing the name Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain and looked ahead to even more name changes across the state.
Now only the U.S. Board on Geographic Names needs to approve the name Mestaa’ėhehe (pronounced mess-ta-HAY) Mountain before it becomes official and marks the first name change since Polis revived the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board last summer.
With more than a year back in action, the board is picking up its pace and considering new names for even more places across the state still grappling with its often racist or violent history. Some bear outright racist names while others — including Mount Evans, Kit Carson Mountain or the Gore Range — carry the names of controversial figures.
The effort to reconcile these names folds into a broader national trend as Americans in recent years have taken a more active interest in confronting the country’s past. But still the work presents its difficulties.
Polis took issue with the name Mestaa’ėhehe, because, he said, it’s difficult to correctly pronounce, type or write.
“We’re not just changing a name, we’re changing behavior,” Polis said. “We don’t want people mispronouncing it or simply giving up and just calling it Squaw Mountain.”
But he still approved the change.
The 11,400-foot mountain sits southeast of Idaho Springs and a granite lookout post built in the 1940s marks its summit.
The renaming board also faces those who disagree with proposed changes, such as the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners, which wrote to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names opposing a proposal to change the name of Chinaman Gulch southeast of Buena Vista. The commissioners argued that they didn’t find the name to be “derogatory or offensive,” given its historical context.
The commissioners’ argument, however, shows how the old names serve as painful reminders for people living nearby, Buena Vista resident Daniel Tom told the state board Thursday morning.
Slurs such as “Chinaman” are used to show people that they’re different, that they don’t belong or that they should be feared, Tom said, an Asian-American.
“My family’s been here since the 1860s,” Tom said. We’ve served in World War II, we’ve served in Korea, we’ve served in Vietnam. But after all that service, we’re still different.”
The renaming process
For decades Colorado had a renaming board but it fell dormant when the state archivist, who led the program, retired in 2016.
Polis then revived the board in July 2020, but the group needed first to agree on how it would select new names, chairman Tim Mauck said. That took several months and at the time the board already had a backlog of about a dozen mountains, gulches, creeks and mesas for which new names had been considered.
That list has since grown to 17 places with new name proposals.
Renaming a place can take the better part of a year, if not longer, according to Mauck, deputy director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Once the board approves a proposal, the governor must agree with it before it’s sent to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for final approval. And both the state and federal boards conduct community outreach to make sure the new name would sit well with community members, tribes and others.
It’s an intentionally deliberate and collaborative process, Jennifer Runyon, spokeswoman for the federal board, said.
“Nobody wants the federal government to come into a community, wag our fingers and say ‘you will be offended by this name so we’re going to change it for you,’” Runyon said.
But not all proposals are made because a given name is offensive, Runyon said. Some come from private land owners who want to correct a spelling mistake or honor a lost relative. Other proposals come for unnamed geographic features.
Renewed interest and a short history
The effort to change offensive or controversial names of mountains and other geographic places itself spans back decades. In 1975 officials in Alaska petitioned the federal government to change the name of the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, to Denali. The name Mount McKinley, after President William McKinley, was considered offensive and an imposition on the people around the mountain who already had a historical, Native American name for the summit. Ongoing debate and political disagreements, however, blocked the official name change until 2015 when then-President Barack Obama finalized the switch.
And in recent years the public’s interest in name changes has increased even more, Runyon said. She pointed to the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., the 2016 riots in Charlotte, N.C., and the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as recent events that stirred that renewed interest by forcing people to come to terms with how American history has recorded the treatment of minority groups.
She also cited a recent push across the country to remove statues of Confederate Army leaders, many of which were built generations after the Civil War ended.
“Now the people know their history and they start to question why we’re honoring these people,” Runyon said. “They ask ‘Who was Gore? Who was Evans?’ ”
The Gore Range, which includes many Colorado’s major ski resorts in Summit, Eagle and other counties, is named after Lord St. George Gore, a prominent hunter who “wiped out a lot of food sources for tribes that had been around forever,” Runyon said. “A lot of people suffered because of his hobby.”
Gore led a hunting expedition across Native American territories — including Northwest Colorado — in the mid 1800s during which he killed dozens of grizzly bears and thousands of buffalo, elk, deer and antelope while using coyotes for target practice, The Steamboat Pilot reported in 1964.
Mount Evans, just west of Denver, is named after John Evans, a territorial governor forced to resign in the wake of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 where U.S. soldiers in southeastern Colorado attacked and killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people after a peace deal had been reached.
And Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southwestern Colorado was named for the 19th-century frontiersman who helped crush a Navajo uprising during the American Civil War.
All three of those places are awaiting the state board’s review for new names but for now the group has only approved the name change for Squaw Mountain.
Squaw, like the word redskin, is a slur used to degrade Native Americans and is more specifically used against women. The racial epithet even served as the name for a historic California ski resort near Lake Tahoe, which resort officials changed this year to Palisades Tahoe.
Runyon said with Polis’ approval the federal board could approve and finalize that name change by the end of the year.
From mountains to schools
That renaming reckoning has also played out at schools across the state this year after lawmakers passed a bill requiring 25 facilities that used American Indian mascots to change to remove them or face a monthly fine of $25,000. Those schools must also change their uniforms, signs, paintings and more.
Cheyenne Mountain High School, for example, changed its mascot this year from the Indians to the Red Hawks.
Groups have pushed back against the changes, arguing that the names or mascots aren’t meant in a disrespectful way. Others, like the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners, don’t feel they’re offensive.
Chaffee County commissioners wrote to the federal Board on Geographic Names in late 2019 opposing a proposal that would change the name of Chinaman Gulch to Trout Creek Gulch.
“There is historical relevance to the name,” the county commissioners wrote. “Senior members of multi-generational families in our county recounted to us that there was, indeed, an older man of Chinese descent who lived in a humble cabin in that gulch. He made his living cutting railroad ties for the defunct Trout Creek Railroad. The name Chinaman Gulch is thus a valid historical reference and speaks to the contribution of the Chinese descendants who moved here to work with the railroads.”
But at Thursday’s board meeting, Chaffee County residents, other members of the public and those on the state naming board disagreed.
“That gentleman had a name,” board member and State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez said. “If they really wanted to honor someone they would have known his name.”
Board members didn’t like the proposed name of Trout Creek Gulch even if they agreed the gulch’s name must be changed. They agreed to consider alternatives in future monthly meetings as they move to replace the derogatory name.
The other name changes under consideration are:
- The Gore Range in Eagle, Summit, Grand, Routt and Jackson counties. Proposed alternative: The Nuchu Range.
- Negro Draw in Montezuma County. Proposed alternative: Robinson Draw.
- Calkins Lake in Weld County. Proposed alternative: Union Reservoir.
- Redskin Creek in Jefferson and Park counties. Proposed alternative: Ute Creek.
- Redskin Mountain in Jefferson County. Proposed alternative: Mount Jerome.
- Devils Head in Douglas County. Proposed alternative: Thunder Mountain.
- Negro Mesa in Delta County. Proposed Alternative: Clay Mesa.
- V H Pasture Reservoir in San Miguel County. Proposed alternative: Elk Springs Reservoir.
- Vurl Reservoir in San Miguel County. Proposed alternative: Wapiti Reservoir.
- Squaw Mountain in Teller County (different from the one just renamed in Clear Creak County). Proposed alternative: Sunnyside Mountain.
- Squaw Gulch in Teller County. Proposed Alternative: Mound Gulch.
- Chinaman Gulch in Chaffee County. Proposed alternative Trout Creek Gulch.
- Benchmark Lake Reservoir in Eagle County. Proposed alternative: Nottingham Lake.
- Negro Creek in Delta County. Proposed alternatives: Clay Creek or Hops Creek.
- Mount Evans in Clear Creek County. Proposed Alternatives: Mount Blue Sky, Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho, Mount Rosalie, Mount Soule.
- Kit Carson Mountain in Saguache County. Proposed alternative: Frustum Peak.
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