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Wisconsin Geographic Names Council Approves New Name for Oneida & Vilas County Lake

Wisconsin DNR

Warning Note: Some people may find the language in the text and audio of this story offensive. WXPR has chosen to say the name of the lake so that it’s clear which lake name is being changed and as an educational tool for the derogatory term.

A lake in Western Oneida and Vilas Counties will likely be getting a new name.

The Wisconsin Geographic Names Council voted to approve the name change and send it to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The reason for the name change is because the current name for the lake is derogatory toward Native American women.

Squaw Lake borders Oneida and Vilas County about halfway between Fifield and Minocqua.

Squaw is a slur for a Native American women’s genitalia. It’s so offensive that several people that spoke during the Council’s hearing on the lake change wouldn’t say the name.

“Imagine if you were referring to the woman in your life, instead of referring to them as a woman, you’re referring to them as that part of their anatomy. It’s completely dehumanizing. It’s not just derogatory, it’s harmful to the way our women are viewed and it’s completely inappropriate any longer. It just doesn’t fit with our future,” said Alexandria, who spoke in favor of changing the name during the Council’s public hearing on Wednesday.

All of the Councilmember’s agreed the term should not be used as a name of a lake. They approved sending a name change of Amber Lake to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for final approval. The change also impacts Squaw Creek that does flow into Price County.

Several Lac du Flambeau Tribal Members and lake residents spoke in favor of the name change.

“I have friends out east that are of the Algonquin tribes where that name actually comes from that is a very, very derogatory term coming from a language person out there, a colleague of mine, he says, ‘yeah Historically that’s name has been used in a really negative way.’ It’s time now for people to learn the truth about behind it and that’s it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable,” said Greg Johnson, who is a history and language instructor for the Lac du Flambeau Tribe.

A couple people spoke against the change, not necessarily because they wanted to keep it as is, but they felt process wasn’t public enough and didn’t give enough time for input.

Council Chair Carroll Schaal ultimately said public opinion or county approval on the name change didn’t matter.

“We’re not taking a vote. This isn’t a majority decision. We’re acknowledging some of the past harm here and moving toward a greater, inclusive society and hopefully the minor inconveniences that this name changes has is far outweighed by the demonstration of goodwill and mutual respect,” said Schaal.

Some councilmembers made the point that the term has been banned from being used to name places in several states.

Howard Veregin is a Council Member and the Wisconsin State Cartographer at UW Madison.

“Federal guidelines on derogatory names are very clear. I also agree that there’s been a lot of movement over the past few decades to remove names like this in various states across the country including Wisconsin,” said Veregin.

People who live on the lake voted in favor of renaming it Amber Lake because of its coloring.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.