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.