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Three Dillingham students want to change a creek and road name marked by a racist and sexist word

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Tyler Thompson
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KDLG

The students want the name "Squaw Creek" changed to “Seven Sisters Creek” to reflect the community’s connection to the sisters. The sisters traveled to Dillingham from Nushagak Point, a fishing village to the south. They settled there and lived between the creek and Lake Road.

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

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Credit Courtesy of Amber Webb, Stephanie Jenson, Alora Wassily, Trista Wassily, Harmony Larson
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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.

“They landed by Squaw Creek and they were looking for a white husband to have kids and stuff," said Alora 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 Seven Sisters were named Constantine; Natalia; Palanka; Okalena; Anuska; Catherine and Massa. They traveled to Dillingham from Nushagak Point, a fishing village to the south. The sisters settled there and lived 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 that visit, the girls told their teacher Stephanie Jenson they wanted to change the name. Jenson was ecstatic and contacted Carty, Amber Webb and Tiera Schroeder. Jenson says they worked on changing the name before COVID-19 put that 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 are descendants of the Seven Sisters.

 

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Credit Courtesy of Stephanie Jenson
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The family tree Courtenay Carty, Tiera Schroeder, Amber Webb, Robyn Cheney and the students put together, showing their connection to The Seven Sisters.

Speaking first is Alora, followed by Trista and Harmony.

Alora: “Descendants of The Seven Sisters through adoption…” 

Harmony: “Marriage,” 

Alora: “and marriage and stuff like that.” 

Trista: “And me, Harmony and Alora, we were all sisters five generations ago.” 

Harmony: “Yep.”

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

Jenson: “Okay, ‘Seven Sisters.’”

Andrew-Ihrke: “Malrunelgen Alqaqellriit”

Jenson: “And Creek?”

Andrew-Ihrke: “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.”

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. They also removed the image of their mascot — Chief Wahoo, a caricature of a Native American — from their uniforms and stadium, but continue to sell merchandise displaying the image. A ski resort in Nevada also announced its changing the resort’s name to remove the use of the offensive and derogatory word.

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Credit Courtesy of Stephanie Jenson
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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.

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

“Because it shows 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 this 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?"

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Credit Courtesy of Stephanie Jenson
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The students working on the presentation and action plan.

The fifth-grade students requested that the Dillingham City School District write a letter of support renaming the creek. 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 of the road 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 that 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.”

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 that the city was contacted about the process of changing the name. 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 change it and local support. The proposer must also establish that the current name is derogatory to a racial, ethnic, gender or religious group.

Update: We changed the title of the article to reflect the group's desire to change both the creek and road name. A paragraph has been corrected to reflect the students asking for support to change the creek's name. 

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Credit Courtesy of Google Maps
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Satellite view of the creek and road from Google Maps.

Contact the author at tyler@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200