I’m no mountain biker, but trail names appeal to the blend of English teacher and dirt bag in me. Too slow on the draw to create puns myself, I can’t help but nod appreciatively at Jabbarocky, Tumbelina and Berm Donor (bonus points to the first two for also being literary allusions – BAM!). As for my dirt bag side, I’ve taken photos at the Dusty Beaver, discussed whether Moose Knuckle should be renamed Camel Toe, and imagined an entire back story to Brian’s Worm (think: Brian’s ex built the trail and left a warning for all who may be eyeing Brian up as a future partner).
I certainly don’t head out on MTB trails expecting the peaceful, natural names of hiking trails – the rockwalls and ridges and rims. Instead, I get a chuckle or two at the trail signs and concern myself with making adequate airplane sounds (or racecar – it’s open to interpretation) while banking corners by foot. Follow it up with a pint of Backhand of God and a dirt tan, and I’ll sleep easy.
So it’s been a bit of a thing for me that I haven’t slept so well since hitting some local MTB trails a couple of weeks ago. A few of us were running through the Gillard trail system, where we could have been skipping down technical downhill trails with names like Roller Coaster or Drops-a-Lot. Instead, using a combination of trail signs and the Trailforks app, we found ourselves on Squaw Hollow.
Surprised by the name, I casually raised it with my group and got a boys-will-be-boys-esque response along the lines of – well, you know mountain bikers. Which I do. (In fact, I’m hoping to one day trade my spandex roadie shorts for baggy ones – as soon as I can get over the implications of trail names like Knuckle Duster and Skull Coaster). But this shrug-off seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me. I get that we need our spaces to loosen up and crack jokes at Brian’s worm – and trails are one of the best places for that – but come on now. Squaw Hollow?
A quick culture lesson for the folks who think the word “squaw” is no big deal – or at worst, is a titch politically incorrect. Kind of like the N-word (some folks dub it the S-word), it carries a special zing as it refers exclusively to women (think slut here, not superwoman or survivor). A derogatory term, it’s tied to the casual, insidious and all-too-familiar discriminatory attitudes towards Indigenous women and – let’s be honest here – to serious forms of sexual violence, along with Canada’s shockingly high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tack on the word hollow, as the trail name does, and the whole thing takes on an ominous tone.
A nasty name indeed – but perhaps I’m being too sensitive here? MTB trails are basically a deck of Cards Against Humanity, anyway – have another beer, and they become funny. Shall I return to my Backhand of God and just stick to Kerplop next time I’m in Gillard?
See, the trick is that it’s not just a nasty trail name. Let me elaborate. This nasty name (nastier than Brian’s emasculation - sorry, Brian), like all the other names of the trails, is stuck on a piece of crown land – land I (as a syrah-drinking trail runner) might see as a fine chunk of Okanagan recreation and wine country but that has never (in fact) been handed over to said crown by the Syilx people who know it like the backs of their hands. Who know it because they have inhabited it, lived from it, and traversed it for millennia (before mountain biking was a twinkle in anyone’s eye). So, by naming our trails in any way that ignores this, much less in such a way as to overtly degrade, demean, and dehumanize, we lay one more crust over this fact. A crust that means we continue to forget that this land isn’t ours to name (which could be what we want – is it?).
People across Canada are starting to recognize the name game and are peeling off this crust by renaming everything from mountains in Banff to Toronto city streets, re-minding us that Indigenous people are here now, and many of us are living and working and mountain biking and trail running and Backhand-of-God-drinking as guests on Indigenous land. I’m not always a bandwagoner – but there’s a movement here that I think we Kelowna folks could learn from.
Some of us, I’m sure, think it would be a big waste of time and taxpayer money to put the effort into renaming, especially considering how solidly we’re attached to our trails. With every trail (and its name) comes a memory – whether it be of a wipeout or a great rip. We’ve watched the landscape change as we’ve ridden through the seasons – as the mud dries up and the larches turn – and we might feel that by changing the trail names, we will lose our connection to the trails we call home.
(Funny thing – the names were changed and the land shifted hands a long time ago, in ways that sought to remove Indigenous people’s even deeper connection to their spaces, their lands, their homes.)
So often, unless something matters to us personally, we shrug and move on. Even right now – as I struggle to write – I notice the sun starting to come out, and I feel like closing my computer, downing the dregs of my mocha, keeping the crust where it is, and heading out for a trail run in Gillard, where – if I keep my eyes on the technical terrain and wicked MTB features – I can miss the Squaw Hollow sign entirely, or brush it off again. Damn, it’s a good day for a fall run. I think the larches are turning.
Because you know what? We are in a perfect place to change the name of Squaw Hollow and have a big chat about the significance of names in the Okanagan.
We have a hard-working (and downhill-ripping) local crowd of folks at MTBco who maintain the currently “illegal” Gillard system. They are pursuing Section 57 status, where MTBco will gain the right not to own the land, but the authority to construct, rehabilitate and maintain the trail network. They already know (they’ve expressed to me directly) that new trail names are a must, from Squaw Hollow to the straight-up sexist trail names (look them up – they also have to change – for overlapping but slightly different reasons). So why not do it right? Let’s really think about how we do our naming. And make Gillard a well-maintained trail system that our whole community may be proud of.
To be honest, I thought about doing some renaming myself (I’m pretty sure there’s a hammer and some scrap wood in my garage). But despite my English teacher roots, I don’t have the pun-skills to do the trails justice ( – Berm Donor! How do people think of these things?). Pretty sure I’m not the best person for the job.
Instead, perhaps Gillard provides an opportunity to bring our community together, where people like me may get to know our Indigenous neighbors better and listen to what they have to say about matters like this. Where, instead of naming our trails in a way that continues to erase (or worse: discriminate against) our neighbors, we find ways into meaningful relationships as we build our trails together.
So. Let’s talk.
Can we do this?