The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board on Thursday agreed that Chaffee County’s offensively named Chinaman Gulch should be changed to Yan Sing Gulch, which means resilience in Chinese.
“As in resilience in the face of adversity,” said William Wei, a member of the board.
The board will send its recommendation to Gov. Jared Polis, who revived the group in summer 2020 with a mission to scrub offensive geographic names from Colorado’s landscape. Polis would then forward the recommendation to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. Earlier this month, the federal board approved the Colorado board’s Polis-supported first official recommendation to change the name of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain, which is pronounced mess-taw-HAY.
Last month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, ordered a task force to strip the word “squaw” from all federally managed landscapes. A federal task force has assembled a list of 660 federally recognized places that are labeled using the slur, including 28 in Colorado.
The state board, which is taking a very thorough approach to vetting new names for Colorado features, even ones that are obviously offensive, has some issues with Haaland’s order.
The problem is the timeline. Haaland has ordered the task force to survey the five closest geographic features adjacent to anything named with the slur. So, for example, if a Squaw Peak is next to, say, a Cottonwood Canyon, the peak could be renamed as Cottonwood Peak, said Jenny Runyon with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Once the task force creates that list, the public has 30 days to comment on the proposed replacement names and then the federal naming board would vote, in one fell swoop, to change all 660 names.
That would be an unprecedented move by the federal board, which typically addresses a handful of changes proposed by residents and communities at its monthly meetings.
“It’s a complete 180 from the way we have done things in the past,” Runyon said. “We have never been proactive and now the government is.”
For the Colorado naming board, that could be too swift.
The board on Thursday hinted it would be contacting the Interior’s new task force to express its concern about rushing through the process of renaming at least 28 features in Colorado. The board’s outreach effort to carefully vet replacement names has taken months for every proposal.
A second order issued by Haaland last month creates a task force “to address derogatory geographic names.” That process, Runyon said, “will take years.”
She said the process of stripping “squaw” from 660 features will serve as “a sort of pilot project” that will guide the order to remove other derogatory names.
A specially formed committee of members from the Colorado naming board surveyed residents in Chaffee County as well as several Asian American and Chinese American groups in the state to come up with a replacement name of Yan Sing Gulch, which was originally named after a railroad worker from China who lived in the area. The Chaffee County commissioners have expressed initial support for renaming the area as Yan Sing Gulch.
Wei hopes to include Chinese characters in literature describing the name change, though not on the signs.
Denver resident Gil Asakawa, who identified himself as Asian American, provided public comment in support of the name change.
“I think it’s so important to not just reach out the community and give lip service and check a box … but to choose the right language and choose an appropriate word and to choose a name that is inspirational and aspirational and covers all the bases, really, of injustices of past and current hopeful … feelings about race and culture in the country,” said Asakawa, a freelance journalist who occasionally writes for The Colorado Sun.
Chaffee County Assistant Attorney Daniel Tom, who is Chinese American, also agreed with the name change, saying Yan Sing was “a good name to honor the Chinese American experience in Colorado.”
Renaming Chinaman Gulch “is only a small step toward ending the prejudice, bigotry and bias toward the AAPI community that has been propagated through the years by racial slur, hate speech and false narratives,” said Soon Beng Yeap, a board member with Colorado Asian Pacific United, a group that championed the new name.
The state board spent almost an hour considering the city of Longmont’s request to formally change the name of Calkins Lake east of the city to Union Reservoir. The 736-acre lake in the Union Reservoir Nature Area has been known locally as Union Reservoir for more than a century and is filled with water owned by the Union Ditch Co.
But it was originally named after Carlton Chase Calkins, a member of the Calkins Family, which first arrived in America around 1640, said Judith Schiel, a member of the 300-member Calkins Family Association. The family is opposed to formally removing the Calkins name from the reservoir.
The board recommended that Polis reject the proposal to change the name to Union Reservoir.