On Squaw Mountain -- and renaming it

Although it is not named for a specific woman, I have to discuss Squaw Mountain, which is an 11,773-foot mountain near Idaho Springs, and which I love for its surprisingly astounding view and for the little fire lookout tower on its summit.  I love it, but its name twists my heart every time I hear it.

Squaw Mountain is the perfect triangle on the left -- viewed from my mother-in-law's house in Evergreen, CO.

The origin and the appropriateness of the word "squaw," according to an article from Indian Country Today, has been much debated.  Some historians (including Dr. Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki historical consultant) argue that, in the Algonquin languages, the word merely means "woman" or "wife".  However, others have argued that the English word came from a French corruption of the Mohawk (or Iroquois) term for "vagina," which gives sexual meaning to the word. Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee American Indian rights activist insisted on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 that squaw was certainly an Algonquin word meaning vagina, that it was the equivalent of the "s-word," and that continuing to use it only reinforced a shameful cultural heritage of sexual abuse of Native American women (a reality that continues in today's America, where 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes).  Harjo's adamant stance inspired many campaigns to rename places in the U.S. that had been named "squaw."  In fact, in the first four months of 2008, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names omitted the name "squaw" from sixteen valleys, creeks, and other sites.  Most notably, the USBGN renamed Arizona's 2,612-foot Squaw Peak Piestewa Peak, to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi/Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

And yet, Colorado still has a Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County.  Worse:  Colorado has a Squaw Pass in Clear Creek County, a Squaw Pass in Hinsdale County, a Squaw Creek, a Squaw Gulch, a Squaw Point, a Squaw Canyon, and two other Squaw Mountains (one in Routt County and one in Teller County).

If Harjo and others are correct, we have Slut Mountain, Slut Pass, Slut Creek, Slut Gulch, Slut Canyon.  The ugliness of the word -- of its import -- becomes clear.

If Harjo and others are correct, we have places named not to honor the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho women who walked in these woods and camped in these meadows and canyons, but places named to "honor" the dishonorable and violent ways in which those women were regarded and used.

If Harjo and others are correct, we have places named to commemorate massacres like Sand Creek, in which over 400 women, children, elders and disabled Cheyenne and Arapaho people were raped, murdered, and mutilated.

If Harjo and others are correct -- and I believe they are -- we must rename all the places that still retain "squaw."  We must choose names that allow us to tell our children honorable, not horrific, stories.

My wife's cousin Amber asked in a comment on my last post how we can convince the powers that be to rename the places we love, to honor the good and not the shameful.  I did some research on this, and I found an answer in number 6 on the the FAQs on the U.S. Board on Geographic Names site.  The proposed change of name must be for a "compelling reason," and the name must be for someone who has been dead at least five years.  A "compelling reason" includes changing a "derogatory name".  I do not think I will have much luck proposing a change to Mt. Evans' name, but I do think I could successfully propose a change to Clear Creek County's Squaw Mountain.  What name should I propose?  Please vote in the comments section, and explain why you think that name should be the one I propose to the USBGN (note:  I did not mention the Ute Chipeta here, since she already has Mount Chipeta named for her -- more on that someday).

1.  Mochi (1840-1881), the 24-year-old Southern Cheyenne survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre who became a warrior to avenge her people (see my post on Mount Rosalie).  She participated in several raids -- the most notorious of which was the attack on the German family on a stagecoach route in Kansas.  Shortly after, Mochi, her husband Medicine Water, and 33 others were caught and incarcerated as prisoners of war of the U.S. (Mochi is the only Native American woman to ever be held as a POW in the U.S.).
2.  Mistanta (Owl Woman) (1800-1847), the wife of William Bent, who ran Bent's Fort in eastern Colorado.  Owl Woman was a Southern Cheyenne leader who helped negotiate trade between the many groups who traded at Bent's Fort, and helped maintain good relations between the white people and the Native people.  As the eldest daughter of the powerful Cheyenne leader White Thunder, Mistanta worked as a translator and important bridge between the indigenous tribes and the newcomers, in an era before the military-ordered massacres and removals.
3.  Helen White Peterson (1915-2000), who was part Cheyenne and part Lakota Sioux, and who moved from Denver to Washington, D.C., in 1953 to become the first Native American woman director of the National Congress of American Indians, and later returned to Colorado to start an ethnic studies program at Colorado College.
4.  Dr. Susette "Bright Eyes" La Flesche (1854-1903), who was of the Omaha tribe (the daughter of an Omaha chief), attended a Historically Black College (Hampton), earned her medical degree, and returned to practice medicine on the reservation, working to improve the situation of Native Americans.  Again, no direction connection to Colorado, but a Native American woman to be honored.
5.  Sarah Winnemuca (c. 1844-1891), a Northern Paiute activist and writer, who traveled across the United States (certainly through Colorado, and definitely to D.C.) speaking about the rights of Native Americans.
A watercolor/sketch of Mistanta/Owl Woman done at Bent's Fort by Lt. James Abert in 1845.  Squaw Mountain could easily be re-named Mount Mistanta or Mount Owl Woman, to better honor a specific Colorado Native American woman.

We can better name the lovely pyramid between Evergreen and Idaho Springs.  It's true that a re-naming will also require a re-naming of the pass, of the fire lookout, and of the road -- and maybe of the neighboring Chief Mountain -- but a beginning seems important.  Which Native American woman should we honor?

The sign near the top of Squaw Mountain, May 2016 (note the fire lookout at the summit, just barely visible in the fog)


How (and why) to hike this mountain (4.1 miles RT):
1.  Drive on Squaw Pass Road (also called Highway 103) west from Evergreen (or east from Echo Lake) to a clearly signed place to the south of the road.  4WD vehicles can drive up another 0.7 miles to a gate, but only in the summer.  In the winter after a heavy snow, the road/trail is barely passable for people wearing snowshoes.

2.  Hike past the gate up the wide road, following clear signs to Squaw Mountain.  Toward the top (about two miles from the parking area on the road), the trail/road begins to zigzag up to the fire lookout tower, which is available to rent overnight -- click HERE for the reservation site.  It's very popular; reserve months in advance.

3.  The summit of Squaw Mountain affords lovely views of Mount Evans and Rosalie and of Pikes Peak to the south.  It's a beautiful place to sit for awhile -- even better, it's a perfect place to spend the night.  Although my wife and I saw only snow and fog from the 360-degree windows in the fire lookout, we loved the silence of the deep snow (and noted that many others had written about a howling, threatening wind in the cabin log).

4.  How much better would it be if we could say we had spent the night in the fire lookout on the summit of Mount Mochi, or Mount Mistanta, or Helen White Peterson Peak?  Remember to "vote" for your favorite re-naming option of Squaw Mountain -- just leave a comment.
My wife on snowshoes in front of the fire lookout on Squaw Mountain (May 2016)

Our "view" from the fire lookout, May 2016


  1. Note: Mitike likes Bright Eyes Peak as a new name. Meredith says she likes the idea of honoring Mochi.

  2. I vote for Mount Mistanta. Mistanta was a Colorado native. To me, she symbolizes wisdom and bridge-building among people of different origins.

  3. This is tough but I think I'd go with Mount Mochi.


Please leave your ideas, your questions, your suggestions, and/or your corrections here.

Hiking Mount Ida for Ida Ruth

My gram, Ida Ruth Miller, was the kind of woman people would have named mountains or lakes or flower species for. She was an intent ...