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Oregon Considers 'Dead Indian' Name Change Proposals In Jackson County

Three geographic features in Southern Oregon all have the words “dead indian” in their names, but that could change.

Jackson County Commissioners discussed a proposal to change the name of Dead Indian Mountain as well as its namesake creek and water spring at their Tuesday meeting. The proposal is under review by the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which is asking for feedback from local governments and tribes.

The proposal suggests naming the mountain, creek and water spring after their ancestral Latgawa people, relatives of the Takelma tribe.

Although local and state agencies can comment on these proposals, a national board will ultimately make the final decision. That could take at least a year. Still, only Jackson County officials have the ability to rename the nearby Dead Indian Memorial Road, a controversial name that has roiled the county for more than a decade.

Commissioners didn't decide whether they would support the geographic name changes, although they're expected to discuss the proposals again at their next Tuesday meeting.

Proposals to change geographic names have had an uptick in the last year, according to Bruce Fisher, president of the Oregon Geographic Names Board. He says Oregon likely has the most geographic names that use the word “squaw” — an offensive name for Native American women.

“Why do we have so many? I don’t know,” Fisher says. “Why do we have so many ‘negro’ name features? I don’t know. There’s not a lot of history for a lot of those names. They were just added in at various times in a request for names or call for names.”

There are about 20 formal proposals to change geographic names in Oregon. Nine are in Jackson County, including one for Negro Ben Mountain. All nine were submitted by former Ashland resident, Alice Knott, who now lives in San Diego.

In her proposal to change the name of Dead Indian Mountain, Knott explains that she grew up in the area while her parents ran Camp Latgawa, which was called Dead Indian Soda Springs Camp until her mother, Marjorie Knott, changed the name.

“She sought advice and met with members of tribes, with people who knew the old languages and with faculty at Southern Oregon University,” Alice Knott writes. “Over the years, thousands of English speaking people who have been to the camp have become accustomed to using that name.”

Fisher says the state geographic names board takes several factors into consideration before it begins researching a name change. Proposals need to be detailed, he says, and they need to suggest a new name that is relevant to the geographic area.

“These are legal names, and so when they are officially named, they have a legal binding,” Fisher says. “It's a serious thing to change a name, so it's taken seriously.”

He adds that the board gets a lot of proposals to change some of Oregon’s quirkier names — including Idiot Creek in Tillamook County or Jump-Off Joe Creek in Josephine County — but board members generally only spend their time on what they consider to be serious proposals.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.