Squaw Butte

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On Friday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made a formal declaration that “squaw” is a derogatory term and she aims to remove it from all federal government use. That could very well include its use as the name of Gem County’s iconic Squaw Butte.

“Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” Haaland said in a prepared statement.

Celebrating shared cultural heritage is exactly what Gem County Historical Museum Director sees Squaw Butte currently represents.

“The name has always been a memorial to the native women and children that were massacred near that location in the 1800s,” Meg Davis said. “The profile of a sorrowing mother in the face of the Butte has been remarked upon for over 100 years. I can still see that face from a distance — particularly from Linder Road in the Treasure Valley.”

Contrary to reports that the name was created in the 1930s, Davis has written materials referencing Squaw Creek, which runs 50 miles north and south to the east of the Butte, as far back as the 1870s. She recalls her grandfather, who homesteaded on a slope of the Butte in 1898 using the name then. But she says he usually referred to it as “the Lady.”

“He would go outside and have his first cup of coffee in the early morning, paying tribute to her, “ Davis said. “Most evenings his last cigarette and cup of coffee was shared on the porch with her as well.”

Construction workers building Highway 52 in the 1930s uncovered artifacts that supported the long-standing account of the massacre and its role in naming the Butte. It was “The Legend of Squaw Butte”, a poem by B.R. Wright believed to have been penned in the 1930s that perhaps solidified the naming.

Exactly when official government mapping of the region began using the name is unclear though documents indicate common usage prior to 1910.

The term is not uncommon in western geographic identifiers. Over seventy different rivers, creeks, buttes, mesas and valleys have carried the name in Idaho. Many have changed names in the past, dating from initiatives began in the 1960s.

Changing Squaw Butte’s name is not a new discussion. Davis recalls an effort made by an Indian tribe based in the eastern United States in the mid 1980s. Within the last decade representatives of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe came to Emmett to visit with Davis concerning the history attributed to the name. They were seeking details on how the name came about and what evidence existed concerning the massacre as their oral history had lost track of this portion of their native lands.

“We talked at length about the history and the reverence that we felt was being shown,” Davis said. “They were not pleased with the use of the name, however, even after the meeting. We asked them to provide us a suitable Shoshoni name but they did not respond.”

A number of the name changes that have been made have maintained an element of the Native American heritage, and met agreement from local Tribal councils.

How far-reaching Haaland’s directives go are yet to be seen but a change of Squaw Butte as the official government moniker for Gem County’s geological landmark appears likely. The majority of the landmass that makes up Squaw Butte, including the 1,796 meter summit, is under the management of the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

Numerous names have been proposed over the years as a replacement for Squaw Butte. More recent suggestions have included Patriot Peak, Independence Butte, or Pioneer Butte.

“Those names might carry some current political weight but not really reflect the history,” Davis said. “There is no doubt that the Butte was a landmark for Native Americans and early wagon-train settlers. Those trendy names are not our shared history. The very fabric of many of our families are woven into that hillside.”

No procedures or timelines have been specified by Secretary Haaland for the naming transitions to take place.

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