The Dane County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution last Thursday to rename Squaw Bay, an occupied Native American ancestral land, after it was deemed offensive to the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The board requested the Dane County Department of Planning and Development change the Southeast corner of Lake Monona’s name from Squaw Bay to Wicawak Bay by Oct. 1, 2019.
The term “squaw” has been used for decades in a historically disparaging way toward indigenous women. While its colloquial use is believed to derive from Algonquian language, some Native Americans believe it refers to female genitalia, according to a New York Times article.
The Times also reported that, dating back to the 1990s and even before, in some state legislatures — like Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota — have passed measures to require or encourage the elimination of “squaw” names. Other states have had more “scattered” efforts to make the change.
Regardless of the word's etymology, its use as a slur has long been criticized by indigenous populations, including members of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
When deciding on the new name for the bay, the Dane County Board drew from the Ho-Chunk nation’s celebrated history as fur trappers, specifically of the muskrat, which translates to Wicawak (We-chow-ek).
However, this is not the board’s first attempt to make this change.
In 2005, the board failed in its attempt to rename the bay when the Monona Council decided they needed more input from other locals living off the bay, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
At the time, the Ho-Chunk Nation Traditional Court recommended the name change, the board said in a statement.
Sup. Tanya Buckingham, District 24, stated the board was wrong to not change it then. As a lead sponsor of the legislation, she worked with some elderly Ho-Chunk members who suggested changing Squaw to Wicawak.
“This is what should have been done long ago,” Buckingham said.
Buckingham wanted to secure the Ho-Chunk’s support for the measure. But more importantly, she wanted the Ho-Chunk nation to know the board would hear and carry out their suggestions.
Buckingham stated she believes their request will be approved and that the Ho-Chunk nation supports the legislation.
The request to change Squaw Bay’s name will move to the federal level for further approval.