Fifth graders campaign to change ‘squaw’ in Dillingham road name

Three young girls and a female teachers stand in a line, posing or a photograph. Each one is wearing a face mask.
The students approached their teacher, Stephanie Jenson, after learning about the history of the creek and The Seven Sisters. From left: Trista Wassily, Alora Wassily, Harmony Larson and Stephanie Jenson. (Tyler Thompson/KDLG)

Alora Wassily, Trista Wassily and Harmony Larson were learning about the history of colonization in social studies class in Dillingham. They visited with the Curyung Tribe and learned the story of “The Seven Sisters.”

“They landed by Squaw Creek and they were looking for a white husband to have kids and stuff,” Wassily said. “Then there’s also white men looking for a Native wife. So ‘squaw’ usually meant young woman or female anatomy. Then when white settlers came, it became a derogatory word towards Native women.”

The sisters were named: Constantine, Natalia, Palanka, Okalena, Anuska, Catherine and Massa. They traveled to Dillingham from Nushagak Point, a fishing village to the south.

An illustration of The Seven Sisters, by Amber Webb. Trista Wassily said the sisters are shown inside a water monsters mouth. The monster is what makes the water muddy by churning its teeth. (Image courtesy of Amber Webb, Stephanie Johnson, Alora Wasilly, Trista Wassily, Harmony Larson)

The sisters settled there, living between Squaw Creek and Lake Road. At a presentation to Dillingham’s School Board, tribal administrator Courtenay Carty shared how the creek and road got its name.

“Because there was a place where white men could go to find a Native wife,” Carty said.

After their visit to the tribe, the students told teacher Stephanie Jenson that they wanted to change the name. Jenson was ecstatic and contacted Carty, Amber Webb and Tiera Schroeder. Jenson said they worked on changing the name before COVID-19 put the effort on hold.

“They came in and shared everything they had done in spring and then we reached out to Robyn Chaney who kind of helped us with the planning as well,” Jenson said. “So we had a really great group of women who’ve been working together on this. And it’s been really inspirational to see what these girls have done.”

The students want the name changed to Seven Sisters Creek, to reflect the community’s connection to the sisters. Carty, Webb, Schroeder and Chaney used a family tree to show how each of them is a descendant of the sisters.

“Me, Harmony and Alora, we were all sisters five generations ago,” Trista Wassily said.

The family tree Courtenay Carty, Tiera Schroeder, Amber Webb, Robyn Chaney and the students put together, showing their connection to The Seven Sisters. (Image courtesy of Stephanie Jenson)

During a presentation to the Dillingham School Board, the students said they spoke with Elder Dora Andrew-Ihrke about Yu’pik names for the creek. Jenson lead a call with Andrew-Ihrke, who shared Yup’ik words for Seven Sisters Creek.

“Creek by itself is ‘kuigat.’ But then when you say like you’re talking ‘Seven Sisters Creek,’ it becomes ‘Malrunelgen Alqaqellriit Kuigat’ or ‘kuicuariit.’ It’s a small creek, not a big one,” Andrew-Ihrke said.

The presentation shared other examples across the country of name changes from terms that are offensive, racist or sexist. Cleveland’s professional baseball team announced that it will change the name. It also removed the image of their mascot — Chief Wahoo, a caricature of a Native American — from uniforms and stadium, but continues to sell merchandise displaying the image. A ski resort in Nevada also announced it’s changing the its name to remove the use of an offensive and derogatory word.

Alora Wassily said she counted six signs displaying the word on her way home from school. The last slide in the girls’ presentation showed a road sign displaying the words “Squaw Creek” on Kanakanak Road.

“When people come to Dillingham, the second sign they see is a derogatory word,” she said.

At the end of the presentation, Robyn Chaney shared how the adults helped the students put the project together. Chaney and others asked them to consider traditional decision making — not just what’s best now, but what’s best for future generations.

“So we determined that not only are we all connected to the Seven Sisters, but some of us are also seven generations from those seven sisters, which is significant to us in our traditional decision-making,” Chaney said. “So that’s something I asked them to consider, was the impact to their seventh generation. How would that impact the school? What bus stop might their kids get picked up at?”

The girls worked closely with the adults to put together an action plan and presentation for Dillingham City School District, Curyung Tribe and City of Dillingham. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jenson)

The fifth grade students requested the Dillingham City School District write a letter of support to rename the road. They also asked the Curyung’s Tribal Council for a tribal resolution to change the name. Their next step will be to meet with the City.

But changing the name may be a challenge. It’s a private road, and the city’s code has no process to make that change happen.

City Planner Cynthia Rogers said in an email a change to the code would be needed to provide a renaming process.

“I believe the appropriate route for this would be to request that the city council take action to send the issue to the code committee for consideration,” Rogers wrote.

Dillingham’s municipal code states that “no application for a private road name change may be submitted to the planning director or planning commission.”

Rogers acknowledged the city was contacted about the process of changing the name, but that meeting has yet to be scheduled.

The students and adults also want to change the name of the creek itself. They will have to present a proposal to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Historical Commission.

According to the commission, to change the name of a landmark, the proposer must present a compelling reason to do so and show local support. The proposer must also establish, as appropriate, that the current name is derogatory to a racial, ethnic, gender or religious group.

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