No s#%@w


One look at the Oregon landscape, and you wouldn't suppose "squaw" is a dirty word. Roughly 130 geographic locations in the state are labeled with the S-word. S- creeks, S- mountains, S- lakes and S- peaks — it's found all over the place (and not just in Oregon, as HCN has reported). This June, however, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which has a surprisingly long history, will gather to rid its land of this bona fide slur by approving replacement names for natural features.

Oregon used to have the most "squaw" locales of any state, but over the past decade, 50 or so of those have been renamed, including many landmarks near the town of Sisters. Squaw Back Butte, for example, is now Akawa Butte, the Wasco tribe word for badger. But coming up with new names is and has been challenging, and politically fraught. It’s near impossible to satisfy all stakeholders.

Some argue "squaw" isn't offensive by origin, but we shouldn't deceive ourselves about its ugly connotation now. (Though perhaps tricking ourselves is possible with other names, like Custer or Gore?) Others think that the linguistic spelling of native names will prove difficult to pronounce, flummoxing GPS-less RV-ers, and other wayfarers. There's Isquulktpe, for instance, which the Umatilla people of eastern Oregon have proposed to replace a spot called Squaw Creek Overlook on Highway 84. But the names board has decided it will allow Native spellings to be applied liberally — no matter how twisting to the Western tongue —  rightfully acknowledging that all these features have pre-historic names.

Isquulktpe, it's worth mentioning, means "the throat slitting place." That’s a slightly chilling description for a view, in my opinion, but at least it's gripping and of historical import (as opposed to the generic and offensive "squaw"). The name commemorates the Umatilla women, who, as the story goes, were attacked while gathering roots, but managed to get the better of their assailants — killing them.

Meanwhile, further east in Oregon, near Steens Mountain, there lies a Whorehouse Meadow. The BLM changed the spot on its maps to the slightly more-PC Naughty Girl Meadow in the 1960s, but in 1981 the Oregon names board insisted the meadow remain as formerly dubbed. "Whore" is no racial slur, but surely it doesn't do justice to women pushed into selling their bodies by larger social forces. ("House" doesn't quite make sense, either, since this was apparently a tented bordello.) Why not change this meadow's name, as well? Naughty Girl Meadow isn't a cut and dried improvement, I'll admit; but it's playful, at least.

And even further east, just over the border in Idaho,  there are still plenty of Squaw this's, Squaw that's, though the state legislature recently eliminated other insulting words from its legal code. The Idaho House squashed a bill that would have outlawed the usage of "squaw" in 2001.

When it comes to names, we'll forever have a long way to go. We need to keep reminding ourselves that names are loaded with cultural and philosophical weight. A  name asserts a kind of belonging, ownership or identity, that can be either productive or appropriative — and likely both. But a name is also just a moniker. "Steens," for example, is by no means written in the mountain's constantly eroding stone. Nor should it be, since it honors the U.S. Army Major who drove away the area's native Paiute population in the 1860s.

Perhaps until you have a personal experience in, or with, a place — whether in situ, or through story — a name is meaningless. For me, Steens Mountain is "a dry, windswept place I've been just once, on a hot, summer field trip, to see Mojave black-collared lizards and other reptiles."


For more about the politics of geographical names, you might want to look up this provocatively titled book, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame.

Squaw piece
Bill Croke
Bill Croke
Apr 15, 2010 08:36 PM
And how much will it cost the taxpayers to change all those official maps, signs, etc.? Political correctness will be the end of us, financially anyway. Then again, the people so aggrieved are the ones bankrupting us. I say let sleeping squaws lie.
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Apr 20, 2010 11:53 AM

    Colorado has so far escaped the crusade to eliminate "squaw" from the landscape, although somebody tried to get it going a few years ago by complaining about Squaw Pass near Idaho Springs.

    My own county has a Squaw Creek; Zebulon Pike camped near its mouth on Christmas Day, 1806. When there was some talk about renaming it a few years ago, I suggested we go the full route, something like "Native American Womyn Cusec-Challenged Watercourse."

    A few years ago, Minnesota ordered its counties to replace squaw names. One county proposed "Politically Correct Creek" and "Politically Correct Bay," which the state rejected. The last I read, they were still at an impasse.

    According to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, "squaw" entered written English language in 1634. It came from the Narragansett, a Massachusetts tribe, and just meant "woman." Other Algonquian languages, like Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Arapaho, have similar terms. There is no scholarly evidence that it ever meant "vagina" in those languages.

    So this whole "Let's eliminate the offensive word from our maps" is based on a false premise. And even if "squaw" were so derived, so what?

    Today we use the word "quaint" to mean charming in an old-fashioned way, as in "a quaint country inn," but back in Geoffrey Chaucer's day, roughly six centuries ago, it was spelled "queynte," and had two meanings -- one akin to its modern definition, and another referring to the vagina, as in "he caught her by the queynte" in the raunchy "Miller's Tale."

    And what could be a more wholesome word than "nature," one that appears often in these environs?

    But in 1622, it also had another meaning, the "female pudendum," as the OED politely puts it, with a citation referring to a "great lady" who, to preserve her chastity, had "her nature stytched up." Does every "nature preserve" or "natural area" now need a new name, lest someone find an excuse to be offended?

    I'll grant that a lot of Squaw Creeks and the like should be renamed, just because there are so many of them. The same could be said of all those Dry Creeks and Bald Mountains -- let's apply some creativity and imagination when appropriate. My county has some delights like "Dead Goat Gulch" and some banalities that could use better names, such as the "Middle Fork of the South Arkansas River."

    But where will sanitizing stop? Do the Grand Tetons need a new name? And what happens when the purifiers discover that right next to U.S. 40, on the road from Kremmling to Steamboat Springs, there rises a Granny's Nipple? Or that the local name for an eminence at the Salt Works Ranch in South Park is Butt Crack Butte?

comment removed
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Apr 21, 2010 09:36 AM
Dear Kwak-kwak, your comment has been deleted because it contained personal insults. You're welcome to express your opinion without resorting to such tactics. Thanks.
kwak (etc)
kwak (etc)
Apr 21, 2010 02:48 PM
  I insulted no one, simply pointed out Mr. Q perhaps didn't understand negative connotations of words like 'squaw' because there was no similar putdown of people look like him.

I, by the way, look not dissimilar.

Maybe there are mountains called Geezer Dome or similar . . . but your removal of my comment seems to prove my point: someone's missing the boat defending the use of 'squaw' as benign, when his editor thinks 'hirsute' or 'aging hippie' is language too strong to share, even when used as an example.

Oy vay & good grief.
Ted Foureagles
Ted Foureagles
Apr 22, 2010 07:08 PM
And I understand that the British have re-named most of their Gropecunt Lanes. It's rather a shame in cases where the moniker is helpfully descriptive.

Grandma used to describe herself as "just a poor old squaw with too many children".

Nasty Connotations...
Adam Taylor
Adam Taylor
Apr 21, 2010 12:37 PM
Huh... maybe this sounds naive, but truthfully, I didn't know that there were bad associations with the word "Squaw." I actually thought it just meant woman and/or baby.

Perhaps this is a result of the vanilla-culture I have lived in for most of my life?
Shouldda Asked...
Apr 28, 2010 11:44 AM
I agree, it is going to cost an arm and a leg to rename all of the locations with the word "squaw" in their names. But...the word doesn't come from these parts. Just like Mt. Hood in Oregon being named after a British soldier - I mean what the heck? Or Mt. Jefferson, half of which is owned by the Warm Springs Indians, being named after a president who wanted to "exterminate" the race? Get real.

If you didn't want to spend all that dough renaming all of these locations, it would have been easier IMHO to just ask what the names of these features were. They had names, given to them by the people who were here for a very long time. Heck, they probably still have those names.

We've only done a full-circle, coming back to what the features were probably called before we renamed them on the map.

So pay your taxes, and let's rename the features to what they were named before we came along and gave them another name.