The drive to expunge the derogatory term “squaw” from some of our lakes, creeks and buttes is going as well as you might expect in a country as riven about its history as this one.
Which is to say: It’s a new front in the culture wars.
“I suppose if you had it your way you’d remove every bit of our great history and soon we’d not even be called America,” wrote one commenter to the federal Department of the Interior, which has proposed removing “squaw” from 660 place names across the nation – including 18 in Washington state.
“We will see you at the polls come November, when the Red wave will once again Make America Great Again.”
Because America was never greater than when it was subjugating Native Americans?
I suppose it was predictable that ridding the landscape of a disparaging term would get sucked into a bigger fight — about whether our history should delve deeply into, or even acknowledge, the nation’s obvious sins.
This proposal comes at such a partisan moment that it appears to have triggered a reflexive rallying on behalf of the slur.
“There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘squaw,’” another of the hundreds of commenters wrote to the government. “All you’re trying to do is inflame and divide before the next election.”
Our poor state Committee on Geographic Names is a little-known group inclined more to cartographic arguments than cultural ones. It found itself under fire from all sides.
“It should remain up to Indigenous People to decide for ourselves what is of offense, not pundits, talking heads, amateur journalists, or white folks in general,” a member of the Nez Perce Tribe wrote to the committee.
“My fear is that this … is another act of white savior-ism,” a member of the Colville Tribe echoed.
It actually came down from Deb Haaland, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, who said the word was self-evidently derogatory and so should be replaced en masse across the country.
But Interior set up a super-tight timetable (possibly due to fears about the above-predicted red political wave rendering it all moot.) And it fashioned a bewildering rubric for renaming all those places quickly, one with unintended consequences.
A task force identified the closest geographic features to the ones named “squaw,” and then suggested simply replacing that “derogatory modifier” with one of the nearby root names.
For example, Squaw Island down in the Columbia River is adjacent to Gee Creek. So it could be quickly, and presumably painlessly, renamed “Gee Island.”
It’s not so simple out at Mount Rainier National Park. They have a Squaw Lake, and one nearby feature that the task force identified for a root name is a meadow called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. So the lake could then become “Indian Henry’s Hunting Lake.”
Which … doesn’t make a ton of sense? And might also be racist?
“Indian Henry” was a Native farmer and mountain guide in the 1800s whose real name approximated “So-To-Lick,” according to the Mount Rainier park tourist site. The story goes that a white postal carrier, Henry Winsor, was put off pronouncing this name, and allegedly said “that’s no name – your name is Indian Henry.”
So here we have a lake named by white people after Indigenous women, and now in 2022 white-led committees may rename it based on the act of another white guy 150 years ago who renamed an adult Indigenous person after himself. That’s a lot of layers of appropriation — it’s practically an object lesson on how history really does come down to whoever gets to tell the story.
To its credit, our state Committee on Geographic Names looked at this brewing civil war and yelled “time out!” Not with getting rid of “squaw,” which they support. But it’ll take at least two years to come up with replacement names that make sense and don’t erase or re-subjugate Indian culture, they said.
“A computerized process that treats geographic names as interchangeable does a disservice to Washington State,” the committee wrote to the feds last week.
The committee is worried it may be forced into accepting the computerized names, as placeholders, and then have to go back to change the names a second time. Government efficiency at its peak.
My only input is: Just ask the tribes. They probably have names for these lakes and creeks, or stories about those areas. Using their names could be a tiny step to reversing the damage. It would also enrich our maps, and our history, rather than blanderizing both with names picked by algorithm.
Asking the tribes doesn’t mean prejudging the outcome. In southern Oregon, there’s a “Dead Indian Memorial Road,” and people keep demanding that name be changed, too. Some of the local tribes are reported to have said they wish to keep it, though, and so it remains.
The biggest mistake was by whoever thought this country might quickly confront its past without first dragging it through the muck of a larger cultural conflict.
Americans aren’t fighting right now about policy issues, like climate change or taxes. What gets us going the most are questions of who we are, and the stories we tell, often falsely, about ourselves.