Progress on changing Oregon place names slow

Of The Bulletin

BEND — Thirteen years after the Oregon Legislature formally called for eliminating the term “squaw” in geographic names, fewer than one-third have been officially changed.

The Oregon Geographic Names Board is at the forefront of the push to end the use of the word, considering requests from the public on a case-by-case basis, and weighing proposed new names most often recommended by Native American tribes with a history in the area.

Of the 172 squaw place names in Oregon in 1993, the names board has considered a change for all but 30. New names have been approved for 52 places, with dozens more awaiting approval from a federal board that makes final determinations in consultation with the state board.

Among Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties, 14 locations largely clustered around Whychus Creek — formerly Squaw Creek — have been changed.

Phil Cogswell, a member of the Oregon names board for more than 30 years and its current president, said the word squaw is believed to have originated with the East Coast Algonquin tribes as a term for woman, then spread westward by white settlers who often used it in a derogatory fashion.

The only remaining squaw location in Central Oregon is Squaw Lake, a tiny seasonal lake nearly 60 miles southeast of Bend. The board has had no requests to change its name .

Cogswell said Deschutes County's Squaw Lake is like many of the places that retain a squaw name, a place few have heard of or can find on a map.

“There's some features that are so obscure, they're never referred to as anything,” Cogswell said. “Just about anything can have a name, but a lot of times, the names aren't used.”

The board has on occasion received some pushback to name-change requests.

Cogswell said board members have often heard that alternative names proposed by tribes are unpronounceable, though he counters that places like the coastal city of Yachats have names that are equally baffling at first glance. Other opponents have claimed they don't consider squaw a slur, he said, and some have bristled at the idea of tribes having any influence beyond the boundaries of their reservations.

In Grant County, the board is engaged in a back-and-forth with the Umatilla tribe and the county government, which has objected to the replacement names proposed by the tribe and put forward its own suggestions.

“I can understand, it's like a lot of cultural change,” Cogswell said. “People — who may be well-intentioned, there's no reason to doubt their sincerity — you're kind of telling them they've been wrong or incorrect in something they've been doing their whole life.”

Other potentially derogatory names have attracted less attention than those including the word squaw.

Last fall, Negro Brown Canyon in Jefferson County was formally renamed John Brown Canyon, on the east side of the Deschutes River near the Warm Springs grade, in recognition of the black farmer of the same name who lived in the area in the late 1800s. Still, according to the federal database of place names, there are 18 places in Oregon containing the word negro, two Chinaman Hats and a Chinaman Trail, and, in Lake County, a Jew Valley.

Names board member Champ Vaughan said the tribes, particularly the Umatilla, have been the driving force behind nearly all of the name changes in recent years, and they've understandably focused their efforts on the word squaw.

Vaughan said that even among tribal members, feelings about the use of the word and the intensity of those feelings varies widely.

“For the most part, there isn't very much interest,” he said. “There is a smaller percentage of people that are very much interested, and they sometimes influence the rest of the population one way or the other.”


Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

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