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Squaw Creek Park is getting a name change, from trope to possible tribute

Meskwaki Nation recommends 'Wanatee,' after women's rights activist

Geese and ducks swim in Squaw Creek within Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazet
Geese and ducks swim in Squaw Creek within Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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MARION — Named 55 years ago for the creek that runs through it, Squaw Creek Park — as well as the creek — may soon get new names as concern grows that the label is offensive and signals not all are welcome at the public tract.

Dennis Goemaat, executive director of Linn County Conservation, said the name has been a topic in the county for a while because it represents “a very derogatory term toward Native American women.”

Not only that, but the conservation board adopted a new strategic plan in 2019 that, among other things, calls for inclusion for everyone.

“The plan specifically wanted access for all,” Goemaat said. “There’s known health and wellness and mental health reasons to use natural areas. The board wanted all members of the community to have that access.”

He said the name of the park doesn’t physically bar access — but sends the wrong message. “It could send a message that we don’t care about a group,” Goemaat said. “We want the name to be inviting and reasonable.”

The 998-acre park was founded in 1965. It is home to Squaw Creek Campground, Gardner Golf Course, trails for hiking and horseback riding, a popular winter sledding hill and a dog park.

The possibility of a name change comes at a time other names that elicit Native American and African American tropes are being rethought. The NFL team in Washington will now be called the generic “Washington Football Team” until it comes up with a new nickname. Closer to home, Johnson County leaders are exploring whether their namesake county could be named after some other Johnson, not the former Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson who owned slaves.

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But like in these examples, the question for Linn County leaders remains: What would a new park name be?

The conservation board hired a historian to look at the past of the area and see if there was a name of someone who had lived nearby who was worth recognizing.

“The historical perspective was interesting, but there just wasn’t a name that jumped out,” Goemaat said.

Goemaat said the historian reached out to the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa in Tama County to get feedback on changing the name. One name suggested was Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee.

Wanatee was born in the Meskwaki settlement near Tama in 1910 and was a women’s rights advocate. She was inducted in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Wanatee also worked at the Toledo Sanatorium as well as the Sac and Fox Day School, according to Mary Bennett, special collections coordinator at the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Wanatee was a Meskwaki language specialist and was a resource for the Smithsonian Institution. She also served on the Governor’s Advisory Committee and was a member of the Iowa Arts Council’s “artist-in-the-schools” program. Nationally, Wanatee was the first woman elected to the Meskwaki Tribal Council, serving for two, four-year terms.

“That idea hasn’t been adopted, but it’s intriguing to honor a Native American woman since the current name is derogatory to women — so she’s a very viable candidate,” Goemaat said.

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Lawrence SpottedBird, executive director of tribal operations for the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, said the idea was proposed to the tribal council, which unanimously supported changing the park and creek name to honor Wanatee.

“The term ‘squaw’ has long been considered by most natives across the country as offensive due to the hundreds of years of derogatory use,” SpottedBird said. “It’s not a positive term. The continued use of it is not appropriate and disrespectful to the people of native tribes.”

In a letter to Bennett and Goemaat as well as John Doershuk from the Office of the State Archaeologist, Judith Bender, chair of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, reiterated objections to the term.

“The Meskwaki Nation applauds your willingness to make changes that honor people through the use of their name, and not diminish them as human beings through the use of derogatory terms,” the letter reads.

And in a letter from State Archaeologist Doershuk to Goemaat, Doershuk endorsed the renaming of the creek and park as well.

“There is no place in modern American society for use of this term and certainly not as part of an official name for a public park or waterway,” Doershuk’s letter reads. “Renaming the park in honor of Meskwaki elder Adeline Wanatee rightly honors generations of Meskwaki leaders who are women and hopefully will go a long way to right the injustice of the too-long use of this derogatory-to-females term for the park and creek.”

SpottedBird said it’s good that a name change is being pursued.

“It’s an issue all over the country,” SpottedBird said. “There are many names and places that need to be changed and it’s a good step in the right direction for the state of Iowa. I would hope this opens up discussion for further name changes to any places around the state that fall into the same category as offensive and derogatory to Native American people.”

To rename the creek, Goemaat said the county must submit a process for a name change to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. “They have a quarterly review,” he said.

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When it comes to renaming the park, the conservation board has the final say. But since the creek passes through the three jurisdictions, a more comprehensive discussion was preferred.

The names would be changed when the federal board and the localities agree. Goemaat said the federal board said to expect a six- to eight-month process.

“Once they have done their review, it gets passed on to federally recognized tribes,” Goemaat said. “They then have 60 days to file their opinion or objection. After, that name would be changed, no problem.”

The creek flows through Marion, Cedar Rapids and other portions of Linn County. Goemaat said he is getting all three jurisdictions involved in the process.

Goemaat met Tuesday with the Marion City Council during its work session and brought members up to speed on what has happened so far and mentioned the possible name of Wanatee.

“The name ‘Squaw’ has been changed throughout the country,” Goemaat told the council. “And it will change here someday, so why wait?”

Council members were supportive.

“I think this is a very positive thing,” Mayor Nicholas AbouAssaly said. “I like the idea of taking a derogatory term and changing the name to something that honors Native American history. You have my support.”

“I would definitely be in favor of changing it,” council member Will Brandt said.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said the Cedar Rapids City Council has shown a willingness to take action to make the community more welcoming and inclusive, and he said he expects the council to seriously review the name change.

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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