Dane County wrote a resolution to request the name of Squaw Bay to be changed, submitting an application Sept. 27 and citing the name as being offensive to Native American populations.
The Dane County Department of Planning and Development submitted a Geographic Name Proposal to the Wisconsin Geographic Names Council of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The proposal requests the name of Squaw Bay to be changed to Wicawak Bay, with the word “squaw” considered offensive.
Dane County Supervisor Tanya Buckingham said the Ho-Chunk Nation Traditional Court, a council composed of tribal elders, requested the Monona City Council to change the bay’s name to Wicawak in 2005. The council never completed the application for reasons that remain unclear, but the Ho-Chunk were under the impression that the name was changed. They requested a name change again when they noticed their first request was not fulfilled.
The origin of the word and why it’s considered offensive is debated. The word squaw is an Algonquian word for woman, but has been used to refer to women in a derogatory way. The history of why the bay was given this name is also debated.
Buckingham said the word wicawak translates to muskrat. The Ho-Chunk were avid muskrat fur-trappers and they felt this name better represents the area. Buckingham worked with the Ho-Chunk and three alderpeople from the Monona City Council to draft a resolution requesting the name change.
“The county acknowledges [Ho-Chunk] occupation, and the county values and celebrates the historical significance of these lands for the Ho-Chunk Nation,” the resolution reads.
County Executive Joe Parisi approved the resolution Sept. 20.
Dane County Assistant Zoning Administrator Hans Hilbert said there is no good reason to continue calling the bay by that name if it hurts others.
“We should really take into mind other people’s feelings,” Hilbert said.
Buckingham said there was confusion over who should be responsible for submitting the application because Squaw Bay sits on the border between Madison and Monona.
The resolution Buckingham wrote assigns the task of submitting the application to Dane County. The Madison City Council and the Monona City Council are drafting their own resolutions in support of the county’s resolution.
The resolutions from the Dane County Board of Supervisors, the Madison City Council and the Monona City Council will be used as supplemental material for the application, Hilbert said.
The WGNC will review the application, where it will be approved, approved with conditions or denied. If approved, the application will be passed on to the United States Board on Geographic Names to be decided on. The WGNC will meet in January, and the BGN’s Domestic Names Council meets once a month.
The whole process could take up to a year and a half, but the probability of approval is “pretty high,” Buckingham said.
“I think in a situation like this where it’s culturally insensitive these things tend to move along without a lot of hiccups,” Buckingham said.
Public commentary will be scheduled for the county’s, Madison’s and Monona’s resolutions. Hilbert submitted the application to avoid missing the deadline on Oct. 1, Hilbert said. Public comment will be taken at the state level as well.
Buckingham said she has received emails from constituents thanking her for sponsoring this resolution.
Monona resident Sunny Schubert, 68, has been fighting against the name change since 2005.
“I object to them erasing local history,” Schubert said.
In an article Schubert wrote for The Herald-Independent, Schubert discussed the possibility that the bay is named after a Ho-Chunk woman named Sarah Wood. Schubert wrote renaming the bay would “write women out of the history books and erase us from maps.”
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Resident Harold Polzer of the Squaw Bay area said, “we should put our efforts into removing the insult from the word” instead of changing the name, according to an article from the Wisconsin State Journal.
“To an extent, you can use things in the past as a lesson,” Hilbert said. “There are other tools you can use to educate that don’t cause the disparities that exist to continue.”
The Wisconsin DNR website lists at least eight other lakes that are called Squaw Lake.
Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer William Quackenbush said the Ho-Chunk nation would be pleased if the name was changed.
“This past year, the discussion came up again,” Quackenbush said. “For whatever reason, we assumed it had been renamed [in 2005].”
The Ho-Chunk will continue to support the endeavor on changing the name, Quackenbush said. Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle is writing a formal letter to support Dane County’s resolution.