Owl Woman

A contemporary drawing of Mestaa’ėhehe (pronounced mess-ta-HAY), a leader of the Southern Cheyenne during the 19th Century. A mountain in Clear Creek County could be renamed for her in the coming months. Drawing by Lieutenant James Abert (1820-1897) via Wikipedia.

Gov. Jared Polis took strong criticism over comments Thursday on the renaming of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County.

The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board recommended in September the governor approve the renaming of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe (pronounced mess-ta-HAY) Mountain. The name is in honor of the wife of William Bent, also known as “Owl Woman,” a Southern Cheyenne leader. According to the proposal submitted by proponent Teanna Limpy, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Owl Woman "helped negotiate trade between the many groups who traded at Bent's Fort, and helped maintain good relations between the white people and the Native people. As the eldest daughter of the powerful Cheyenne leader White Thunder, Mestaa’ėhehe worked as a translator and important bridge between the indigenous tribes and the newcomers, in an era before the military-ordered massacres and removals." 

Polis told the board during its Thursday meeting he was initially inclined to reject the recommendation because the name is hard to pronounce and spell. Polis pointed out that his staff recommended he accept the name change despite their own difficulties with pronouncing it.

"I want to make sure the work you're doing is not in vain," Polis told the board. He indicated that if people are unable to pronounce it, they'll go back to using the previous name.

The name Mestaa’ėhehe "is not in the realm of comprehension for normal readers to read the phonetic version," nor is it easy to spell, Polis said. "The dots and hyphens in the name are not normal," even for someone with a college degree, and he noted his husband, who has a degree in English, couldn't pronounce it either.

"As governor and someone who has to deal with maps" and how people call things, "I have to take spelling into account ... if your work ends up in Washington with a name no one can pronounce, your work is not done ... we want to remedy the history, but we want Coloradans in everyday usage to avoid offensive names." 

Washington refers to the U.S. Geographic Naming Board, which is the next and final step for approval of the name change.

Polis took his first hit from state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County. "I would hope you keep an open mind about this," she said, pointing out that the name came from the indigenous tribes, and suggesting Polis consider meeting with them.

The difficulty in pronouncing a name is not a good reason to avoid using it, she told the governor,  calling his remarks "problematic."

Polis agreed to talk with the tribes about the issue. Mestaa’ėhehe is a fabulous name, he said, but "how do we make the name so that English readers can say it correctly? It doesn't honor Mestaa’ėhehe for people to butcher the name that only academics know and is not in the common usage."

Board member Patricia Limerick of CU-Boulder said the name change could be a teachable moment. "We're dealing with the fact that the transcription of names is from an oral culture," and the name suggested is likely an approximation of the original name. This is a chance to engage the public, she said.

The meeting, held via Zoom, also allowed comments from members of the public, and they weren't shy in criticizing Polis for his comments.

Joie Ha said she understood the governor's hesitance, "but the solution is not to make it easier to pronounce for the general public. There are multiple ways to teach people about the actual pronunciation," such as public campaigns and news releases.

"That's some white colonizer commentary," said Elia Trucks, adding "haven't we learned how to pronounce Tchaikovsky?" She later said that his comments reflect "white people who won't learn names, rather than the people we are trying to celebrate and honor."

Added Jordan Super-Hill: "I agree that trying to get people to pronounce names respectfully is a difficult task, but I agree that starting with higher level officials and news reporters, making sure that these official names work to pronounce them correctly on TV and in news segments. I think more respect will come about when people see that everyone is actually trying, even if it takes time to correctly learn and pronounce. You will never change everyone's minds and pronunciation, but at least people try."

JD Ruybal called it "dumbing down the population."

Polis said in a statement to Colorado Politics that "Maybe elevating the issue like this is the best way to publicize how to pronounce the new name for folks. as Professor Patty Limerick said, it’s a teaching moment."

A Polis spokesman added, "The Governor supports the recommendation. As we move forward, it’s important that we consider names that honor Colorado’s storied past, while being accessible for everyone in our state. The concern is that if Coloradans can’t say or read the names this board chooses, then they will simply continue calling it by its original name, whether that is Squaw Mountain or something else which defeats the purpose of the great work that they are doing."

A comment from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe is pending.

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