Renaming 'Squaw' Sites Proves Touchy in Oregon

The New York Times, December 11, 2004

SISTERS, Ore. - It took two years for members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to persuade Oregon lawmakers to remove the word "squaw" from the state's maps, which are filled with places like Squaw Meadow, Squaw Flat and, here in central Oregon, Squaw Creek. Figuring out what to rename these places has proved more complicated. Around the Warm Springs reservation and the nearby town of Sisters, three years of pointed debate among local tribal leaders has produced 42 alternatives to Squaw Creek in three native languages.

Many of the suggestions are hard for English speakers and even some Indians to pronounce, like "ixwutxp." It means "blackberry" in the Wasco language. Other suggested Indian names are spelled using a lowercase "l" with a slash through it, signifying a guttural "tla" sound that does not exist in English. "It's really gotten out of hand here," said Louie Pitt, director of government affairs and planning for the confederated tribes, which occupy the 670,000-acre reservation.

"Squaw" originated in a branch of the Algonquin language, where it meant simply "woman," but it turned into a slur on the tongues of white settlers, who used it to refer derisively to Indian women in general or a part of their anatomy in particular. The settlers liked the word so much that there are now more than 170 springs, gulches, bluffs, valleys, and gaps in this state called "squaw." All must be renamed under a 2001 law that was enacted after two members of the confederated tribes persuaded the Legislature that the word was offensive to many American Indians and should be erased from maps. But only 13 places have been renamed so far. It is a problem familiar to Indians and government officials in several states where attempts to outlaw"squaw" have been caught in a thicket of bureaucratic, historical and linguistic snares.

Melanie Conner for The New York Times
After three years of debate among tribal leaders, 42 alternatives to Squaw Creek have emerged in Sisters, Ore. Olivia Wallulatum, left, prefers "ayayat," or "beautiful." Colleen Roba prefers "choosh," or "water."

In Maine, one frustrated county changed all "squaw" names to "moose" in one fell swoop to save on hassle, while in Minnesota, disgruntled residents suggested new names like Politically Correct Creek and Politically Correct Bay. But often the stumbling block has been questions over what Indians themselves would prefer instead of "squaw." The debate echoes those from decades ago over places named with slurs for blacks and Japanese. In 1963 and 1974, respectively, offending slurs were replaced on federal maps with "negro" and "Japanese" (about a dozen of the "negro" names have since been changed). Concerns of other groups have been addressed in a more piecemeal fashion, and not always with the same result.

In the early 1990's, after two years of consideration, Yellowstone National Park's Chinaman Spring was changed to Chinese Spring. In 2001, American ichthyologists adopted a new name for the jewfish, the Goliath grouper, citing the precedent of an earlier change, from squawfish to pikeminnow. But the United States Board on Geographic Names declined to rename Jewfish Creek in the Florida Keys because there was little local sentiment for doing so."Geographic names are parts of language," said Roger Payne, executive secretary for the names board and a veteran of the nation's long and frequently ethnically charged place name debates. "Language evolves. Meanings change. This seems to be the case with 'squaw.' "

But no easy universal solution is possible with "squaw," Mr. Payne said, because among Indian leaders, "there was endless disagreement on the word it could be changed to." That is precisely the problem with Squaw Creek. The list of 42 replacement words is causing considerable anxiety here, even among non-Indian residents who support the renaming of the creek, which drains out of glaciers in the nearby Cascade Mountains before running through Sisters on the way to the Deschutes River.

"I think there's one or two on the list that appear to be sort of pronounceable, but many of them are not," said Eileen Stein, city manager of Sisters. One of the suggestions more easily pronounced by English speakers, Itch Ish Kiin, which is another name for the Sahaptin tribe, can come out sounding an awful lot like Itchy Skin, she noted. "People don't want to live near Itchy Skin Creek," Ms. Stein said.

So the debate goes. Mr. Pitt of the Confederated Tribes dismisses those concerns as "ethnocentric," saying ease of pronunciation for English speakers is "not one of our criteria." But he also admits a measure of scorn for the long list, which he sarcastically calls the "pan-Indian solution." If the controversy seems a bit overwrought, Mr. Pitt said, it is borne of a painful dislocation from his ancestors' heritage, with many Indian site names long forgotten. "What is the name of that creek?" he asked himself, frustration filling his voice. "It has a name, what is it?"

Elders in the tribes have been unable to remember what the local Indians used to call the creek, Mr. Pitt said. There has even been some debate about which tribe first controlled the creek, hence the three languages vying for naming rights.

Five other states have tried to take care of the "squaw" problem through legislative action. In 1995, Mr. Payne said, Minnesota became the first and has now renamed all 20 of its offending places (having rebuffed the Politically Correct Creek contingent). Maine, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota followed suit, but all still have work to do on their geographic lexicons.

Along the banks of Oregon's Squaw Creek, a resolution seems far off. In an interview there, Olivia Wallulatum, wearing traditional otter skin wraps around her long black braids and a dress adorned with small white cowrie shells, said she preferred the word "ayayat," which means "beautiful." Colleen Roba, who with Ms. Wallulatum lobbied the Legislature to pass the renaming law, said she liked "choosh," which means "water" and evokes the sound that Squaw Creek makes as it moves around ice-capped rocks and through a grove of pine trees in Creekside City Park in

At Sisters City Hall, Ms. Stein, the city manager, said she just hoped that whatever the new name, it would not "create a hardship" for businesses in the area named after Squaw Creek, or for local tongues.