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Petition calls for Montana landmarks to ditch Confederate namesake

Daily Inter Lake | May 10, 2021 3:00 PM

A coalition of civil-rights and conservation groups and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is calling on a federal government board to officially rename three natural landmarks in western Montana named after Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president and lifelong defender of slavery.

The tribes — along with the Montana Racial Equity Project, the Montana Human Rights Network, the Forward Montana Foundation, the Mai Wah Society, the Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society — announced Monday they have submitted a petition to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The groups are asking the board to rename Jeff Davis Peak and Jeff Davis Creek, located in the southern stretch of the Bitterroot Range in Beaverhead County, as well as Jeff Davis Gulch, just south of Helena's city limits in Lewis and Clark County.

"Geographic features named after an icon of white supremacy like Jefferson Davis aren't just words on a map," Travis McAdam, program director at the Montana Human Rights Network, said in a statement. "Location names can signal support for racism, slavery and the insurrectionist and treasonous Confederacy. These aren't values Montana should endorse in any shape or form."

THE GROUPS propose renaming the mountain summit Three Eagles Peak, in honor of Salish Chief Three Eagles, who welcomed the Lewis and Clark expedition party in 1804 with food, horses and other gifts. A mural by famed Montana artist C.M. Russell depicts the encounter on the wall of the state House of Representatives.

The groups suggest renaming the creek Choos-wee Creek to honor both the Salish people, who were among the original inhabitants of the area, and Chinese immigrants who lived along the stream in the 1800s.

"Choos-wee" is the anglicized phonetic spelling of čusw̓í, the Salish word for Chinese people. According to the petition, "the word čusw̓í refers to the single long braid or 'queue' that many Chinese people had at that time."

"Chinese immigrants played an incredibly important role in developing and working in Montana's mines and industry. By 1870, 10% of Montana's population were Chinese, who performed years of backbreaking work developing Montana's mines," the petition states. "The Chinese in Montana suffered intense racism, including beatings and hangings; boycotts of Chinese-owned businesses; state laws taxing Chinese businesses, prohibiting Chinese immigrants from owning mines, and prohibiting interracial marriage, in addition to federal laws targeting Chinese immigrants and laborers."

For Jeff Davis Gulch, the groups are proposing In-qu-qu-leet — a rough phonetic rendering of the Salish word that means Place of Lodgepole Pine. The Salish and Pend d'Oreille people long used lodgepole pines to make food, light rope or twine, medicine and tipi poles.

"These places are part of the homelands of the Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai people, and by acknowledging these connections, you are also offering respect for our history and our culture," CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said in a statement. "Our people have an ancient and continuing presence in this landscape. The simple choosing of a name is another way to show how we care for this place for the generations to come and an important beginning to the healing process."

McAdam added, "Renaming these features using Salish terms recognizes and celebrates the importance of the people who first cared for this land. It sends the message that Montanans understand our history and want to continue moving towards communities rooted in justice and inclusion."

DAVIS WAS an ardent white supremacist who at one point enslaved more than 100 Black people, and as president of the Confederacy he worked to preserve the institution of slavery in the South.

"The war Davis pursued was based on slavery, and the government he ran defended slavery," the renaming petition states.

In recent years, communities across the United States have worked to scrub the names and images of Confederate leaders, including Davis, from public facilities, landmarks, statues and other memorials, saying slavery and violent secession efforts should not be celebrated. In 2017, Helena city leaders ordered the removal of a fountain in a park that had been installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1916.

Two other mountains in Nevada and California were called Jeff Davis Peak until they were renamed in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Both now bear names from local Indigenous languages.

It wasn't immediately clear how the Montana landmarks came to bear Davis' name. The territory played little direct role in the Civil War, and there's no indication Davis ever set foot in it.

The National Park Service traced the naming of Nevada's Jeff Davis Peak to his time as war secretary under President Franklin Pierce. Under Davis, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was tasked with surveying land in the West, and a lieutenant colonel decided to name the Nevada peak after his superior. Davis served as war secretary from 1853 to 1857, four years before he was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy.

Montana achieved statehood in 1889, and the Board on Geographic Names was established the following year to bring uniformity to the naming of natural landmarks across the country.

"Montana has an incredibly colorful and diverse history, and Jefferson Davis is thankfully not part of it," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society. "It's time we use names for our mountains, forests and rivers that reflect our state's true history and ensure that all people are included and welcomed on our public lands."

Spitler said Monday the Board on Geographic Names has confirmed receipt of the renaming petition and will begin a process that involves soliciting input from the more than 570 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. The board also will seek input from neighboring landowners — in this case, primarily the U.S. Forest Service — as well as a recommendation from Montana's geographic names adviser.

Spitler said the process could take less than a year or drag on for several.

"It really depends on how long it takes the state to make a recommendation," he said.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com