Fighting Words

           BEFORE HE WAS indicted for allegedly conspiring to steal nearly $1 million from the Leech Lake Band of Chippewas, former state Senator Harold "Skip" Finn sponsored a bill that proposed to eliminate the word "squaw" from any geographical feature in Minnesota. The bill passed in April 1995, and 11 counties were advised by the Department of Natural Resources to rename the 19 lakes, creeks, and points of land. All the counties duly acquiesced--with the exception of Lake County and Koochiching County. Their county boards decided that the word was not offensive and the mandate to change the names without first consulting the local populace was anti-democratic. And in the case of Lake County, the refusal to comply has turned into a year-long standoff with the DNR.


           The saga began with the ire of two young Native American students, Angie Losh and Dawn Litzau, classmates at Cass Lake Bena High School in Leech Lake. Within Leech Lake's territory is a piece of land called Squaw Point; the young women found the term offensive, citing it as racist slang for the word vagina.

           During the course of their crusade, the teens contacted Finn, a Cass Lake DFLer and the first Native American member of the Minnesota Senate. He drafted the legislation; the targeted counties encompassed three Indian reservations and ran from the Canadian border to Brainerd, and across two-thirds of the state. In northern Minnesota, waterways and points of land have carried "Squaw" in their names for up to a hundred years. "We tried to help find names with historical backgrounds," says Glen Yakel, a supervisor with the DNR who served as the liaison between the DNR and the county boards.

           Last summer, Yakel wrote to each county board and offered the DNR's assistance. For a time it appeared that the transformation would be seamless. That is, until the Lake County Board sent a letter objecting to "unfunded mandates from St. Paul." After some months of back and forth, Yakel was told that the Board was not going to change the names of Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay. He was mystified: "It was no longer a debate. The Legislature had determined that the name was derogatory." But regardless of the law, the board thought otherwise.

           "In our town, we checked around, and no one took issue with the word 'squaw,'" says Sharon Hahn, chair of the Lake County Board. Hahn claims that the word refers simply to an Indian woman or wife. But the DNR was not about to engage in argument over semantics, and again requested Lake County's compliance.

           In February of this year, at the behest of First District County Commissioner Lee Ramsdell, county board members formally adopted "Politically Correct Bay" and "Politically Correct Creek" as replacement names. The DNR was not amused. "It was not an acceptable name, and they knew it," says Yakel.

           "We weren't trying to be smartasses," Hahn claims, "but the DNR was not listening to us. If this was a problem, we would have changed it." The DNR sent a letter in April proposing its alternatives: Fall Creek and Mist Bay. Once again, the Lake County Board fired off a response.

           The DNR was unimpressed. "Someone had gotten on the Internet and pulled up all the names across the country that contained the word 'squaw,'" says Yakel. While the results yielded 921 names, Yakel maintains it was hardly a suitable defense. "Included in the list were the names of three places in California and Arizona called 'Squaw's Tits,'" he notes.

           As the deadline approached last week, 16 of the 19 features had been renamed. Squaw Creek in Carlton County is now Fond du Lac Creek, and Squaw Lake in Becker County became Wahbegon Lake. Koochiching County still had not adopted a new name, but the board says it will comply. And although Hahn maintains her board is "sick" of this issue, they have not given up the fight. "There are 10,000 people in this county and we are fighting to survive. Change means that every map has to be changed, and this whim will cost a lot of money," she says.

           While the Legislature has the authority to impose any fines or penalties, it is unlikely that any legal action will be taken. But regardless of the outcome, Hahn and her constituents may have the last word. "The oldtimers have been saying that the state can name it whatever they want, but they'll still call them Squaw Lake and Squaw Creek.

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