The Linn County Conservation Board has changed the name of the county’s largest park to Wanatee Park to honor the memory of Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee, an artist and advocate for the rights of Native Americans and women. The park located in Marion was formerly known as Squaw Creek Park.
Although there is some debate about the origins of the term “squaw,” the word has been commonly used as a demeaning way to refer to indigenous women. In recent years, many place names incorporating the word have been changed.
“After research and consideration of the park’s 998 acre area and history in Linn County, the Board has decided to honor a Native American rather than keep a name considered offensive and disparaging toward a culture,” according to a news release from the county.
Wanatee, pronounced Whon’-uh-tee, was born on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement in Tama in 1910. She was a “role model and advocate” in Iowa and in the country for women’s rights, according to the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
A Meskwaki language specialist, Wanatee was a resource for the Smithsonian Institute and served on the Governor’s Advisory Committee. Wanatee was also a member of the Iowa Arts Council’s artist-in-the-schools program and chair of the Meskwaki School Board.
She was the first woman representative in her local powwow association and was the first woman elected to the Meskwaki Tribal Council. She served two four-year terms on the council.
According to The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, Wanatee “worked tirelessly and effectively for the rights of American Indians and for the rights of women — particularly minority women. She believed that American Indian children should be educated in local public schools under tribal control rather than sent to government boarding schools far from their families, and through her work as a tribal council member and on state and national committees, she helped win that right.”
Wanatee was also an artist well-known for her weaving of traditional yarn belts.
She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, becoming the first Native American selected for the honor. Wanatee died in October 1996 at the age of 85.
One of the goals of the board’s 2020 strategic plan is “access for all,” which focuses on inclusion and removing obstacles. That coupled with the current social justice movement created additional momentum for support and led the board to feel “now is the time for change.”
“The Conservation Board supports a spirit of inclusion for everyone, and a name that is derogatory and widely accepted as a slur should no longer be validated,” said Dennis Goemaat, the county’s conservation executive director. “We are strengthening efforts to apply inclusivity policies for management of our parks and other areas for future generations.”
A number of groups were involved in the name change, including the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, the state archeologist, Iowa State Historical Society, Tallgrass Archeology and the Board of Supervisors.
Judith Bender, who is the chair of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, wrote in a letter: “…The Meskwaki Nation applauds your willingness to make changes that honor people through the use of their name, and not diminish them as human beings through the use of derogatory terms. Especially, we thank all who have championed this name change to honor one of our own.”
There are also plans to change Squaw Creek to Wanatee Creek, but the process of changing the name of a river or stream is different and longer than changing the name of a county park.
The Board of Supervisors will request the name change from the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Board of Geographic Names. A decision is expected to take several months to a year, according to the news release.
Wanatee Park, located at 1600 Banner Dr in Marion, is open from 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Individuals going to the park can picnic, camp, hike, nature study and do various winter activities. There are 69 campsites that are usually open until Oct. 15, ground conditions permitting.