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Across The State Creeks, Buttes, And Peaks Need New Names

In June a group of Oregon historians and geographers are scheduled to meet and consider approving new names for a few dozen creeks, hills, and valleys in the state.

About 130 places in Oregon have the word "squaw" in their name. 

Many people consider the word a slur against Native American women.  But the effort to rename those places is moving slowly.

And it has prompted a debate over what makes a good name. Amelia Templeton reports.

Oregon used to have more natural features named with the word squaw than any other state, 184 in total.

In the past decade the word has been replaced in about 50 places. But that still leaves more than 100. 

Mark Flannery is a mapmaker with the U.S. Forest Service.  He says the word is particularly common in a few clusters in southwest and northeast Oregon.

Mark Flannery: “Right in here squaw creek is probably the major feature, here’s lakes, squaw creek gap, squaw creek, squaw mountain, squaw peak.”

Flannery doesn’t know how the name became so common. 

Historian Sharon Nesbitt is the president of the Oregon Geographic Names Board. She suggests that mountain men who named many places in the state in the 1800s may have been describing what they saw.

Sharon Nesbitt : “You’re coming in to this new community and you see Indian women working by a stream, gathering food, and doing wash things, and because they are there and they are present on the land, the word is applied.“

About ten years ago, women from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs convinced the state Legislature that many people consider the word an ethnic slur.

Lawmakers voted to remove the word from all government property in the state.  A second law included a recommendation to consider new names from Indian languages.  

The law didn’t mandate new names for natural features.  Instead, the state Geographic Names Board, and the national board, have encouraged local residents and tribes to propose replacement names.

Maret Pajutee  works with the Forest Service in Sisters, Oregon. She helped develop 22 new names in the Deschutes and Ochoco National forest.

Maret Pajutee: “We chose some words like Akawa Butte. It’s a Wasco word, a feminine form of the word badger. It was a very rewarding project and I was really lucky to be able to work on it.”

Not all of the proposals have gone as smoothly as Pajutee’s efforts did. A few years ago, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation submitted their first proposal to the names board.

They said a place called Squaw Creek Overlook had an older name: Isqúulktpe. That means “the throat slitting place.”

According to Umatilla history, an invading tribe attacked women who were gathering roots there. The women turned the tables, and killed their attackers. But the names board had a problem with the proposal.

Oregon Squaw Names - March 2010 - USGS

Historian Sharon Nesbitt, of the names board.

Sharon Nesbitt: “We’re trying to find a way to strike a balance between the carefully and precisely determined linguistic nature of the words they come up with and something we can put on a road sign so that when some poor soul has a flat tire he can call for help. So that’s the issue.”

In an effort to save their languages, the Umatilla tribes hired a linguist to develop a system of writing them down.

They insisted on using the linguistic spelling of Isqúulktpe and the national geographic names board backed them up.

David Lewis is the Cultural Resources Manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.  He thinks Oregonians can learn to pronounce Indian words.

David Lewis: “There are certain people on the names board that would like to see a more Americanized spelling of native words but that’s kind of…dumbing down the whole idea of place names. I think people are more sophisticated than that and they can figure them out.”

The names board says it expects proposals from the Umatilla for about 40 replacement names at the meeting this summer. And they’re using the linguistic spelling of each.

Agreeing on spelling isn’t the only challenge.  Often different local stakeholders each have their own idea of what makes the best name. 

Jeff Lalande is a historian in Ashland, Oregon. Lalande and several colleagues recently proposed naming several features in the Siskiyou national forest to commemorate a Native American resistance leader named Teecumtum.

Jeff Lalande: “There’s a place I think, a squaw peak and several forks of squaw creek, so that’s the exact same area where Teecumtum lived and where he talked about wanting to come back to.“

David Lewis of the Grande Ronde says the Confederated Tribes of Siletz weren’t properly consulted. And they have their own original names for those places.

David Lewis: “There wasn’t a good process of consultation set up. What we’d like to do is propose that any place names that come forward that are renaming squaw place names, that they be directed immediately to the tribes.”

The Siletz did not respond to a request for comment. 

Historian Lalande says that if the Siletz put forward a proposal, he will respect it. But the Forest Service is getting ready to develop a new set of maps for the area, and it’s time to make some kind of change.

The Teecumtum proposal will be on the names board agenda in June.