Near the summit of a peak west of Missoula, Montana, the hiking trail forks as it clears the forest of pine and fir trees. A wooden sign indicates the way to a steep climb over tumbled rocks to reach the peak, Ch-paa-qn. This is a Salish word that means “shining mountain,” or “gray, treeless mountain top”.
Except that some rube has used a knife to all but scratch the Indigenous word out and replace it with “Squaw” in crude letters.
I was raised from boyhood in the shadow of this mountain. I have stood atop the summit many times and growing up, I knew it as Squaw Peak too.
Last November, the interior secretary, Deb Haaland announced that her agency will initiate a plan to review and replace racially derogatory place names all over the United States. She identified “squaw” as a particularly offensive word, one which currently appears in the names of more than 650 federal land units.
Some say the word merely means “Indian woman”, but no Native language claims the word, just ones similar to it. It is generally accepted to have sexual connotations, particularly as it relates to a woman’s genitalia. In 1999, Montana renamed the peak, as well as 76 other landmarks which carried the same slur. It is also reviewing the name of 17 locations around the state that use “half-breed” or “breed”.
For me, this is personal. I am Chippewa-Cree Métis enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and identify as Métis, and the terms were often used disparagingly to refer to my ancestors. They were called “dirty half-breeds” or “drunken breeds”. Signs were posted in businesses across central Montana that read “no breeds allowed.”
Lost in the discussion about renaming places is the genocide that saw those places named so in the first place. Not just a genocide of burned settlements and body counts, but the genocide of forced assimilation, of the stamping out of ceremonies and traditions, of the elimination of languages.
My people were multilingual. I say “were” because hardly anyone speaks any of our Native tongues anymore. One of my great-great grandfather Mose’s many jobs back in the day was as an interpreter for the US army in central Montana, translating the mix of languages predominant on the plains at that time; French, English, Cree, Chippewa, Dakota, and Crow. That wasn’t an uncommon gig for Métis men.
Of the languages grandpa Mose spoke – at least half a dozen – the only language that remains in my family is English. Today, the language my tribe teaches as part of our language program – an effort to restore a critical part of our lost culture – is Chippewa (Ojibwe). Our last fluent speaker in Montana died last year.
As for our Métis language, Michif – a tongue born as a trade language mixing French, a little Gaelic, and whichever Native community was in the vicinity (generally Chippewa, Cree, or both) – is also little-spoken. Métis elders tell me there are maybe 1,000 fluent speakers of the language in the world, and about 800 of them are in Canada.
When I hear Indigenous tongues spoken my heart swells, both for joy and sorrow. I know my great grandparents spoke their Native tongue, but I never heard them. Does that mean my grandparents spoke it too? Probably. I never heard them and they had good reason not to: as a friend reminds me, “It wasn’t always cool to be an Indian.”
There was a time Indian children were viciously beaten for speaking their tongues. There was a time my people were rounded up by American troops and deported to Canada. In that context, speaking a Native language was dangerous. So my ancestors buried their words.
What about the names of the landmarks important to my ancestors? What of Hill 57 in Great Falls, named after a dubious marketing effort by a pickle-selling entrepreneur in the 1920s? Or Cree Crossing, a ford on the Milk River near the Canadian border used by Indigenous people for millennia? There must be old, beautiful names for them, but no one speaks them anymore. I want to hear them. Their loss evokes a longing inside all of us who still want to share that intimate connection to the land – one which our ancestors once had.
East of Ch-paa-qn are two mountains. They loom over Missoula, but I don’t know so much as their Salish names. However, the pass that cleaves them – where the Red River carts of my people left traces the interstate was built over; where other Indians from territories to the west passed back and forth to hunt buffalo for millennia until the buffalo were all gone – bears the English version of what my Métis ancestors called it: Hellgate Canyon.
My Michif-speaking ancestors used French in naming it Porte d’Enfer, the Gates of Hell, so-called because the Blackfeet Indians who also camped here were so vicious in their depredations on any travelers they encountered that the ground was said to be littered with the bones of the unwary.
Settlers may not like to see Indigenous names returned to the landscape around us. But we were here first, and no amount of failed effort at removing us, or defacing signs, will change that.
The land awaits our re-emergence, and we are here.