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What's In A Name? History And The Power To Offend ... And Maybe Change

An inventory by public radio of Northwest geography found more than 200 places with names some people might consider ethnically or racially offensive. For instance, there's Negro Ben Mountain in southwest Oregon, Chinamans Hat in western Idaho, Jew Valley in southern Oregon and Redman Creek in north central Washington.

But changing longstanding names does not happen easily and some residents don't think it is right "to erase part of history."

By far, the most common potentially insensitive place name we found is “squaw.” A geographic names board in Oregon has been systematically working on "squaw" name changes for years. Now Washington state is scrubbing place names.

"It's a generally offensive name for native people,” Cowlitz Tribal Council Vice Chairman Mike Iyall said. “To me, it's just not an appropriate name."

Iyall is also a member of the Washington state Committee on Geographic Names.

"It doesn't have to be that everyone is offended,” he added. “If it is known to be offensive to some, that should be reason enough to change it.”

‘More squaw names than any other state’

Oregon tribes and government agencies have been laboring for well over a decade to change the names of the many Squaw Creeks, Flats, Buttes, Meadows and Springs in Oregon.

“We seem to have more squaw names than any other state,” Oregon Geographic Names Board President Phil Cogswell said.

Cogswell said his committee initially identified 172 squaw names on geographic features in Oregon. The board has gotten 88 changed and has another 24 name changes awaiting approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.

This map displays places in the Northwest that feature names that may be considered offensive. Blue icons signify water features, yellow signifies peaks and hills, green signifies valleys, meadows and islands. Data supplied by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) and USGS GNIS.

The push to replace the moniker was set in motion by a vote of the Oregon Legislature way back in 2001.

Now Washington State is getting pro-active. Washington State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, convinced the state Department of Natural Resources to inventory objectionable place names. The agency found 36 names and the senator's office published the list. It included Jim Crow Point, Jim Crow Creek and Jim Crow Hill in Wahkiakum County along the lower Columbia River.

Jim Crow no more

At first, the locals did not appreciate politicos from Seattle and Olympia telling them what's best, according to Joe Budnick who lives near Cathlamet, the county seat.

"The inference was that we were racists and that we were stupid and didn't know we were offending people and all this other stuff, when we're not,” Budnick said.

By Budnick's telling, Jim Crow Point and Jim Crow Creek were named after an Indian chief. Another source said the name comes from crows that roosted in trees on the river bank. Yet others suspect the name was a demeaning reference to a 19th century African-American Navy deserter who knocked around the area.

Whatever the true origin, Budnick took the initiative to suggest replacement names.

The retired commercial fisherman/longshoreman/truck driver got a supportive reception at a meeting Thursday of the state Committee on Geographic Names. Budnick proposed renaming Jim Crow Point as Brookfield Point in memory of the vanished cannery town that once thrived between the point and Jim Crow Creek, which he proposed to rename as Harlows Creek. The hill would be renamed Beare Hill in honor of another settler family.

"I just want to get it over with because the papers have been telling us how stupid we are and how we need to be educated,” Budnick said.

‘Don't wipe away our history’

Another targeted name is Squaw Bay in Washington's San Juan Islands. A number of islanders have spoken up or written letters in favor a name change for the small cove. Others want to keep the name the way it is.

A consistent thread through the preservationist comments is "don't succumb to political correctness" and "don't wipe away our history."

"I would never call someone a squaw," said Jon Shannon who lives on Shaw Island. "But there is a difference between making it personal and the history that goes along with the place names that have been assigned historically. I guess I just don't see anything wrong with that."

In Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the gatekeepers for geographic name changes are volunteer committees that meet about twice a year. The Washington state committee has received two competing proposals to rename Squaw Bay. One idea is to go with a tribal name, Sq'emenen Bay, and the other proposal is Reef Net Bay.

Kyle Blum, Deputy Supervisor for State Uplands at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said geographic name boards usually only consider changes when they're brought forward by the public.

"Our traditional model has been to wait and respond to proposals when we get them,” Blum said. “Our goal in working with Senator Jayapal and the initiative has been to actually go out and inform people. ‘Did you know this name exists in your area? Did you know there is a process by which it can change?’"

Controversial homonyms

Proposed new names for geographic places still will need to originate at the local level. Generating interest could be challenging at times because the majority of Northwest places that presently carry potentially offensive names are remote, little-known and/or minor features on the landscape.

Blum's agency is trying to line up public meetings in communities to move the cumbersome name change process along. The first one is planned in King County, home to a Coon Creek. In that case and others -- such as Coon Bay across Puget Sound -- it's unclear if the name was given as a racial slur or if it's a reference to raccoons. A Coon Creek or bay named after the animal might just keep its name.

"We don't want to end up being the piñata in the middle," Iyall said of the prospect of controversy and competing name proposals.

Iyall said if it turns out upon further research that some of the questioned place names have inoffensive origins, they could still be clarified.

"In the case of 'coon,' if it is the animal, then it should be 'raccoon,'" Iyall suggested. "If it's a family name (such as 'Redman'), then perhaps the gentleman's first name could be attached as well. Then both become clear what we're talking about."

"I guess maybe somewhere down the road two hundred years from now, somebody will go along and clean up our work too," Iyall concluded with a chuckle.

Mist lifts over Squaw Lake along the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Steve Redman / National Park Service
National Park Service
Mist lifts over Squaw Lake along the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

Competing factions in the San Juan Islands want to rename Shaw Island's Squaw Bay to Reef Net Bay or Sq'emenen Bay -- or keep the current name.
/ Google Earth
Google Earth
Competing factions in the San Juan Islands want to rename Shaw Island's Squaw Bay to Reef Net Bay or Sq'emenen Bay -- or keep the current name.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network