The first time I went to Squaw Creek Park I was about 10 years old, shooting off a rocket I built during the school district’s summer school electives. The last time I went to Squaw Creek Park was an end-of-year bash for my sister’s swimming and diving team at Washington High School.
Since then I have been on a journey called decolonization. I grew up in the household of local educators but they had adopted my mom in the 1970s. I am not quite a transracial adoptee because they never adopted us, their grandchildren. They were our legal guardians. I was a Lakota child being raised in a non-Lakota household.
Everything I learned about my Lakota culture happened while I was an adult and actively seeking it. The education on Indigenous issues was very incomplete in my Iowa public school education. The word “genocide” was never used in the context of Indigenous Iowa or national history, yet I remember learning about World War II and genocide in Europe in elementary school. These concepts are proven to be age appropriate. Why was I never taught this?
While the lack of indigenous-centered education is the root of the problem, that’s not what I came to write about today. I came to talk about the word Squaw. Because of our lack of indigneous-centered education (despite proximity to a Meskwaki settlement with a rich and beautiful history of survival and self-determination) we cannot see our own racism when it is right in front of our faces.
When you search “squaw” on Google, a Wikipedia article appears on the top of the search results. The first two sentences of that Wikipedia post state unequivocally, “The English word squaw is an ethnic and sexual slur, historically used for Indigenous North American women. Contemporary use of the term, especially by non-Natives, is considered offensive, derogatory, misogynist and racist.”
Wikipedia also specifically mentions an Iowa township still using the word. Within the same article we can see that as early as 1927 Indigenous people took offense to the word in Mourning Dove’s novel “Cogewea, The Half-Blood.” The article also states that as early as 1988 efforts to replace the slur began with the renaming of the Squaw Rapids Dam, one short year after I was born in Iowa City. The fact that it is a slur is not debatable. Precedent has shown us this.
What can we do to move forward and fix this decadeslong mistake? It clearly starts with the renaming of the park and creek in Linn County, with a process led by and approved by the nearby Meskwaki (Sauk and Fox) community. We can look to the renaming of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to its traditional Dakota name Bde Maka Ska as an example of how we can use the park system to honor and educate locals about Indigenous history.
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Furthermore, we have to work on the root of the problem. We need a revamping of how we teach Indigenous history in public Iowa schools, to accurately reflect the scale of genocide that occurred here. We need an initiative to fund the education of more Indigenous teachers in the classroom. We need to fund Indigenous genocide survivors of residential schools to speak to our children the same way World War II speakers are rotated through our public schools.
We are already overdue for Indigenous representation on all levels of Cedar Rapids’ local government, including the school board. Consultation is a service that exists. We can pay Indigenous people for their direct knowledge on how to repair what we have broken.
Every day we allow the word “Squaw” to exist in our city, we display our racism and willful ignorance for the world to see. I was raised to believe we are better than this, we can hold ourselves accountable and we can make real and lasting changes that give our children a more accurate and complete anti-racist education.
Ayla Crosswhite is a Standing Rock member and native Iowan, now living in Oregon.