The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board on Thursday made its first recommendation: changing the name of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.
After a year of plodding procedural meetings, the board unanimously approved renaming the peak — referred to in debate as “S-Mountain” — after the influential Cheyenne translator known as Owl Woman, who facilitated relations between white settlers and Native Americans tribes in the early 1800s. Mestaa’ėhehe is pronounced mess-taw-HAY. (Click here for an audio clip of the pronunciation. )
“I think this will be a good change for Coloradans and all Native Americans,” said Fred Mosqueda, the Arapaho coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in October filed the application for the name change with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, which has final say over name changes on federal land. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis revived the 15-member Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in July 2020 to make formal recommendations that he will review and forward to the federal board.
The federal board has a list of 13 locations in Colorado for which residents have submitted name-change applications. That list includes changing Clear Creek County’s Mount Evans to Mount Cheyenne Arapaho and S-Mountain to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.
Jim Ramey, the Colorado director of The Wilderness Society, was among a handful of Colorado residents and Native American leaders who voiced support for the name change.
“We believe the current name is patently offensive and should have no place on public lands,” Ramey said.
Other locations on the state board’s list of possible name changes include Chinaman Gulch in Chaffee County and a mesa and creek in Delta County named by Mexican settlers for the color black, or “negro.”
The Colorado board continued its discussion on the Delta County name changes — proposed by the Delta County Board of Commissioners who surveyed local high schoolers to come up with the replacement names Clay Creek and Clay Mesa — until its October meeting. Members of the board wanted to continue outreach to a wider audience before recommending the new names.
The vote to change S-Mountain included little discussion from the board’s 15 members, who first met in September 2020 and began hammering out procedures for gathering input on proposed name changes in the state. The board’s formation was part of a national movement to reassess names and monuments considered offensive or racist.
Sculptures have fallen. Professional sports teams have changed names. Mascots have been retired. Since as early as 1995, state lawmakers in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota have removed the name squaw from landmarks.
Most recently, this week the California ski area with that name announced it would be known as Palisades at Tahoe, which is owned by Denver’s Alterra Mountain Co.
The shift took the Olympic Valley ski area more than a year as it worked with the Washoe Tribe and local residents.
Ski area president and CEO Dee Byrne said her team weighed “thousands of data points,” as it considered the name change.
The Palisades at Tahoe ski area now launches the arduous task of changing a 70-year-old identity. (The ski area sent a list of tasks, including changes to 32,000 uniform pieces and switching signs and logos at 5,000 locations around the ski hill.)
Many will be watching Palisades at Tahoe as it navigates rebranding from of one of the resort industry’s most venerable names. The process could help Colorado communities as they begin stripping names off landmarks.
“There is no roadmap out there for this,” said Byrne, who expects the full shift to take as long as three seasons. “Even with our branding agency, there is no playbook we can open up.”
No one lobbied the ski area for the name change. Protestors weren’t picketing the resort. But last year, after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minnesota and Black Lives Matter protests spurred the removal of racist icons from the public square — including a tribute to Christopher Columbus and a statue of Kit Carson in downtown Denver — and a chorus of voices demanding that decades, if not centuries of embedded discrimination be shed, “it was just time,” Byrne said.
“It was just so abundantly clear it was wrong,” she said. “Squaw is a hurtful name and we are not hurtful people.”
The shift at S-Mountain in Clear Creek County will be a first and will set the path for future — and more involved — name changes. It’s likely that the pass over the saddle of S-Mountain will be renamed. A few signs must be replaced.
That will help as the state naming board considers Mount Evans, which is named after Colorado’s second territorial governor, who resigned in disgrace after the cavalry-led massacre of nearly 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne tribal members at Sand Creek in 1864.
And that process could help with an even more tangled removal of the Gore name from the name from central Colorado’s largely roadless mountain range. Lord St. George Gore was an Irish aristocrat who spent two years in Colorado in the mid-1800s slaughtering just about every animal that crossed his path. No one is absolutely clear about how his name found its way to the mountain range, but Gore is now intricately entwined in many Eagle, Summit and Grand county communities, where dozens of creeks, streets and businesses carry the name.
Clear Creek County is among the first Colorado communities to begin the shift to a new name for a county landmark. The county’s board of commissioners in June approved the change to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.
Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock said he heard “some virulent reaction” to the name change, but many more residents supported the shift.
“Especially once they understood the history of Owl Woman,” Wheelock said.
Removing the offensive name sets the path for changing Mount Evans, which is high on the state board’s to-do list.
“We are looking forward to that conversation,” Wheelock said. “And continuing our education.”