Oregon ‘squaw’ geographic names still await changes

By Paul Fattig
Medford, Oregon (AP)

There likely will be no Indian Maiden Lakes or Indian Maiden Peak in Jackson County. During its recent fall meeting, the Oregon Geographic Names Board declined to replace “squaw” in local geographic names, such as Squaw Lakes, with “Indian Maiden.”

The reason, explained member Stuart Allan of Medford, is that the name change submitted by a local resident sounded nice but lacked the gravitas the board sought. “ ‘Indian Maiden’ is kind of an idealized, Arcadian name,” he said.

“Nobody on the board approved it. What we would really like are Native American names that make sense for each place. We’re waiting for the tribes to propose them.”

He was referring to the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and Grand Ronde, whose members include descendants of Indians force-marched from the Rogue Valley to northwestern Oregon in February of 1856. The tribes both objected to the name, he said.

“We expect to get submissions shortly from the tribes,” he added. “We want to do it on a case-by-case basis.

“What we don’t want is a quick, wholesale name change,” he added. “The state of Maine solved the problem by replacing all its squaw features with the name ‘moose.’ “

But replacing the word “squaw” in the names of geographic features in Oregon with the name of one animal is not going to happen, he said.

Allan is a 14-year member of the board, which was directed in 2001 by the Oregon Legislature to rid the state of “squaw” place names because the term has become derogatory.

The volunteer board has nearly two dozen members, including cartographers, geographers, historians and retired journalists.

They consider applications for new names, as well as changed names, of Oregon’s geographic sites, then make recommendations, which are presented to the National Board of Geographic Names. The latter board makes the final decision.

“It’s a demeaning name we ought to get rid of it,” said Allan, 68, a cartographer who is a partner in Raven Maps & Images, as well as Benchmark Road Atlases, both based in Medford.

“Oregon has more squaw names than any other state, by far.”

Statewide there were about 140 squaw names, including about a dozen in Jackson and Josephine counties, he said. The board so far has replaced about 30.

“We were asked to find replacement names as quickly as possible,” he said. “But the process is moving along slowly. As a society we don’t like changing names. This is the socially contentious part of what our board does.”

While he understands that using a name for generations makes some people resistant to change, longevity doesn’t make the name any less offensive to others, he said.

“If we called a place ‘Honky Flat’ because there were a lot of white people there, how would that go down?” he asked.

A few years ago, a group of local residents, including archaeologist Jeff LaLande, American Indian storyteller Tom Doty and historian Kay Atwood, did a lot of research and came up with potential replacements for squaw names, based on Indian names, in Jackson and Josephine counties, he said.

“They submitted them to us they were terrific names,” Allan said, but the names were not accepted by the Siletz and Grande Ronde tribes.

But the board is making progress, he said. It will meet in mid-December to consider proposals by the Umatilla tribes to replace 44 “squaw” names in nine Eastern Oregon counties with tribal names, he said.

“It takes a while to make progress with something like this, but it is happening,” he said.