The Northwest’s “Squaw” Problem

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In Washington State, the current push to get the feds to change the name of Coon Lake and Coon Creek in the Cascades appears to be working, though it has taken the better part of a decade to get this far. By design, changing names on the map is not easy: the various state and federal panels that watchdog the process give great weight to history, precedence and usage by locals. You have to have a good reason to make a change (racially offensive names being one), and you have to have a new name that various authorities and locals approve of.

And if you think it's difficult to change the name of a single locale, try making changes on a large scale. Take, for example, the debate over place names with “Squaw” in them. The scale nationwide is enormous: according to the federal names database, there are over 800 features in the U.S. with squaw in the name.

The term squaw is believed to derive from the Algonquin language word for woman, according to William Bright’s comprehensive book Native American Place Names in the United States. Bright says it is “considered offensive by many Native Americans.”  That actually might be understating it. The word is frequently categorized along with terms like “Redskin,” a racial epithet that is the subject of ongoing controversy as the name of Washington, D.C.’s pro football team.

For some, “Squaw” is the equivalent of the “c word” in reference to a woman’s genitalia. It has also commonly been attached to geographic features reminiscent of another part of female anatomy. Mark Monmonier, a professor of geography and a place-name expert at Syracuse University, documents that trend in his book From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame. He points out that by naming peaks Squaw Tit or Teat, cruder terms than, say, “Nipple” or “Breast,” the namers clearly exhibited a derogatory intent. In his research, Monmonier found only two Squaw Nipples as opposed to 19 Squaw Tits or similar variants on the land. He notes that some of these features have had “Tit” removed from their name, but not “Squaw,” a case of feminism trumping racism apparently.

In 1999, Washington State changed the name of Squaw Tit peak in Yakima County to Pushtay, which means “small mound” in the Sahaptin language spoken by the Yakama and Umatilla, among others.

While the U.S. Board of Geographic Names is willing to consider Squaw name changes, the board has no official stance of toward the term. In other words, it’s not specifically sanctioned, as some racial epithets are, like Jap or Nigger. According to Jennifer Runyon, a researcher for the board, “The Board has … stated in the past that the word Squaw is not perceived as universally derogatory because there are some tribes that still use it. Each proposal is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Runyon explains that it was not an offensive word in the original Algonquin, and some tribes use it in a non-derogatory way, as in the Navajo’s “squaw dance.” So, the board considers it offensive enough to justify reviews when they are petitioned to make a name change, but not enough to ban the term outright.

A number of states and provinces have moved since the 1990s to get rid of Squaw names in a systematic way, including Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Maine and British Columbia.

Still, “Squaw” peppers the map, especially in the West. California has over 100, Idaho 75, Washington some 26. Oregon is a standout with a concentration of Squaw names. In 1993 there were 172 Squaw names in Oregon, more than any other state. In 2001, the state decided to change all those names and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla took on the task of renaming many of the features. The first stop in getting them changed is the Oregon Geographic Names Board, a voluntary group that operates under the auspices of the state’s historical society. It has recommended scores of Squaw changes in the state, but they are not considered final until the U.S. board has signed off on them.

Jennifer Runyon of the national board says that since 1998, they have received 131 requests to change the Squaw names of 108 unique geographic Oregon features — in some cases they have received multiple suggestions for a name change. They have approved 49 new names, rejected two, and 80 proposals representing 57 geographic features, are still pending. The oldest applications date back half a decade to 2010. Sixty percent of the name change proposals are in process.

Runyon won’t use the term backlog, but it usually takes about a year for a name change to be acted on. The process is slow, partly because there are conflicting name suggestions for certain features and potential new names must be vetted. Some Oregonians have objected to some proposed names as being difficult to spell or pronounce. For example, Smithsonian magazine reported objections to renaming one Squaw Creek in Oregon “ixwutxp,” which means blackberry. The Umatilla have created a website that helps with pronunciations and maps proposed changes in the state. One virtue of a new, original name, however, is that it can distinguish a place from others with the same name. Oregon has 38 different Squaw Creeks.

Whites have also pushed back on the changes. Oregon’s rural Grant County has rejected many of the Indian name proposals and has submitted its own names in English, according to the New York Times. Phil Cogswell, head of the Oregon names board, told the Times, “People often want names with a historical reference, but they tend to think back to settler days, not the people who were there for thousands of years.”

Still, Cogswell tells me, the Oregon names board “has recommended a Squaw name be changed whenever a proposal has come before us.”

Another factor contributing to slow action is the many of the names are obscure and on federal lands. The U.S. names board needs input from the relevant federal agency in charge of the piece of real estate where the feature is. Getting input from agencies like the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service can take time, and name issues are not necessarily front burner for cultural resources staffers. Some of those federal workers might also live in the areas where name changes are unpopular, and might not be in a hurry to alienate the locals already generally unhappy with the government.

Not all states are pushing change across the board. Washington State has no current proposals before it to change any of its more than a score of Squaw names, though it has changed a few in the past and would consider doing so in the future. In 2013, the state approved the name change of a Squaw Creek in Columbia County to conform with a name changed approved on the Oregon side of the border for the same creek. Earlier, a Squaw Canyon and a Squaw Creek in Whitman County were changed to Awtskin Canyon and John Paulson Creek.

And the Squaw problem is hardly the only example of offensive names, as the Coon Lake controversy in Washington indicates. The Bend Bulletin reported last year that “there are 18 places in Oregon containing the word Negro, two Chinaman Hats and a Chinaman Trail, and in Lake County, a Jew Valley.”

The process is slow, largely driven by those most desirous of making changes, and adjudicated by a system reluctant to grant it. Still, sluggish though it might be, if people want change, the door is open to make it. But you’ll need patience, and it could keep you very busy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.