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Colorado governor urges board to reconsider naming mountain ‘Mestaa’ėhehe’

Gov. Jared Polis said ‘dots and dashes’ made it hard to pronounce

Gov. Jared Polis dropped in on the 11th monthly meeting of the Colorado Geographical Naming Advisory Board on Thursday with some thoughts on challenging pronunciation.

He had just learned he was saying Mestaa’ėhehe, the name the board has recommended to replace Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County, incorrectly. (It’s mess-taw-HAY … the second ‘HAY’ is silent.)

Polis worried that the diacritical marks meant to guide pronunciation might deter folks from using the new name. People might just keep using the peak’s historical name, which is a slur.

“Mestaa’ėhehe is a fabulous name,” Polis said of the name of the influential Cheyenne translator known as Owl Woman. “But I don’t think it honors Mestaa’ėhehe for people to butcher the name because there are dots and dashes that only professors know. I don’t think you want to add further insult by indirectly encouraging mispronunciation.”

At least one board member pushed back on Polis’ suggestion.

Board member state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Adams County, said her name often is mispronounced. She said mispronunciation should not be the reason to avoid using names that honor Indigenous leaders.

Refusing to use hard-to-pronounce names “is really problematic,” she told the governor. “I think it undermines trying to weave through the different cultures that make up our state.”

Polis created the 15-member naming board in the summer of 2020, and it has met monthly since September last year. The board’s mission is clear: Change the names of Colorado’s geographic features that are offensive. Getting it done is proving arduous. It has recommended only one name change as it seeks board input on each proposal.

Polis said he was initially inclined to reject the new name – the only one approved so far by the board as it studies a growing list of suggestions – but his staff persuaded him to accept the recommendation.

He urged the board to consider how locals and visitors will use the new names. Make them “as easy as possible,” he said.

“We are not just changing a name,” he said. “We are changing behavior.”

If the board’s efforts result in a name that people cannot say or spell, he said, “then your work is not done.”

Board member and historian Patricia Limerick, who directs CU’s Center of the American West, wondered if using Mestaa’ėhehe “could be a teachable moment.”

Most Indigenous names are handed down from cultures that relied on oral histories, so all written names are an approximation, Limerick said.

“This is an opportunity to reflect on our history and a chance to engage the public in history,” she said.

Polis’ drop-in arrived when the board was discussing a request to name an unnamed peak in Jefferson County near Conifer “Cimarron Peak.” In Spanish, the name means wild, or untamed.

Benavidez said she found reference to the word being used derogatorily for slaves seeking their freedom and declined to support the naming, which did have support from the Jefferson County commissioners. The naming board chose to revisit that request in November.

“I think it would be a mistake for our board to approve this name change,” Benavidez said.

‘These names show how we don’t belong’

Next on the agenda was changing the name of Chaffee County’s Chinaman Gulch near Buena Vista to Trout Creek Gulch. In December 2019, Chaffee County’s three commissioners ardently opposed the name change, arguing the name is based on a historical reference to an older Chinese man who lived in the area and cut railroad ties for the long-gone Trout Creek railroad.

“We did not establish that ‘Chinaman’ is a derogatory or offensive term, particularly when used in this historical context,” Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt wrote in a letter to the U.S. Board of Geographical Names reflecting the commissioners’ unanimous opposition to the name change.

The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board is considering renaming Chinaman Gulch in Chaffee County. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

William Wei, Colorado’s former state historian who serves on the naming advisory board, said he could not understand the county commissioners’ position. Of course it is derogatory, he said, comparing it to the n-word and worrying that the commissioners’ support was encouraging people to continue using the slur.

(The commissioners also opposed the proposed name, saying it was a “poor choice” to name a tributary after the main drainage of Trout Creek.)

Several Colorado residents joined Wei in affirming the name as offensive and urged support for a name change.

Joanne Liu, whose Asian Girls Ignite group empowers Asian youths, said the current name “aims to demean and insult an entire community.”

Daniel Tom, who serves as deputy attorney for Chaffee County, said he was surprised the commissioners opposed the name change. His family, which traces its roots to China, has been in the U.S. since the 1860s and includes soldiers who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, said the name of the gulch he rides his bike by every day “degrades and dehumanizes Chinese people.” He was at the fall 2019 meeting when the commissioners defended the existing name. He said he regrets not speaking up in opposition of the word.

“These names show how we don’t belong and continue to show that we don’t belong,” he said.

Jordan Super-Hill with the Asian Student Alliance at Regis University suggested a name that would honor the Chinese laborers who helped build railroads in the region.

The board tapped a committee to research the region and come up with potential names that would honor the many Chinese laborers who built railroads in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.

The board also delayed a decision about renaming Negro Mesa and Negro Creek in Delta County to Clay Mesa and Clay Creek, citing a need for more local outreach. The board delayed action on the Delta County name change at its September meeting. (Mexican settlers named the creek and mesa for the region’s dark soil.)

The board also deferred a decision about the proposal to rename Jefferson County’s Redskin Mountain to Mount Jerome, a name honoring the late local artist Irene Jerome Hood.

Additionally, the board delayed action on a proposal by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to change the name of Calkins Lake in Weld County to Union Reservoir after hearing testimony over concerns about the name “Union.” The board delayed the proposals largely to meet requirements for outreach that ensure widespread input about proposed names.

The lake at the center of Longmont’s Union Reservoir Nature Area is locally known and labeled on many maps as Union Reservoir. The U.S. Board of Geographic names rarely initiates name proposals – it typically reacts to requests for name changes – but offered this proposal to align the reservoir name on federal maps with local use.

Sarah Weed, who proposed changing the name of the Jefferson County peak to Mount Jerome in 2019 and helped win support from Jefferson County leaders, urged the board to take swift action “so the process does not drag on for another two years to remove these obviously racist names.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.