Editor’s note: This story contains language some readers might find offensive.
Members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe call it the “S word” and are pushing for 13 squaw references to be erased for good from maps of the Inland Northwest.
But some local politicians have vowed to fight the change, saying the colorful history of the Wild West should not be plowed under simply to be polite.
The issue of potentially offensive place names has been simmering for years, but it could boil over in coming months as a recent proposal from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe makes its way through state and federal agencies charged with overseeing map names. The tribe wants to replace the names with terms that honor women or reflect the history of the place. If approved, the changes could happen as soon as next year.
Squaw Creek in the St. Joe National Forest, for example, could become Chimeash Creek, after the tribe’s term for a “young woman of good character,” according to a proposal submitted this summer to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Squaw Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene could be renamed Neachen Bay, in reference to the site’s earlier use as a place where deer were rounded up and forced into the lake to be killed.
“It’s been a long time coming to have such a derogatory word taken off our maps,” said Coeur d’Alene tribal council member Norma Peone.
Although linguists continue to debate the true meaning of the word, there’s no such debate within the Coeur d’Alene Tribe or other tribes across the Northwest, Peone said. Like most other American Indians, Peone believes the word is a derogatory reference to a woman’s genitals. This term is never uttered on the reservation. Seeing it on highway signs and maps is disturbing, she said.
“We know why they used that word back in the day. My family comes from a long line of French trappers. We know what they meant,” Peone said.
Changes have already started across the region, with Washington removing at least four references to squaw in the last decade and Montana scratching off about 20, according to research conducted by Janet Ward, a Boise resident who has taken up the cause on behalf of the American Association of University Women. Four such changes have already taken place in Idaho, mostly on the Nez Perce Reservation, but Ward said the state has a long way to go.
Idaho, which has some of the nation’s most eye-popping scenery, also has some of the most jaw-dropping names. Along with 93 creeks, canyons, peaks and springs named squaw, there are at least nine nipples and several tits and bitches on the map. Ward has found three Molly’s Nipples, a Squaw Tit and even a peak called Susie’s Nipple, which is near Milk Creek in Teton County. Teton is a French term for breast.
“Why should you continue to demean women to preserve colorful history?” Ward said. “There are no names in Idaho that would refer to a man in that way.”
The AAUW has been working with tribes in Idaho for six years to push for the changes. The Idaho chapter of the group has even convinced all other state chapters of the organization to take up the cause nationwide, Ward said.
Changing place names is not easy. First, the state’s name council must make a recommendation to a national board. The national board also considers local use and the recommendation of local politicians, said Suzie Neitzel, compliance coordinator with the Idaho State Historical Society. The ultimate decision is left to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
The council is meeting today in Boise and will discuss the proposal from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, but no action will be taken until the next meeting in February, Neitzel said. Among the issues to be discussed today will be a proposal to change Saint Mary’s Nipple near Idaho Falls to Saint Mary’s Knoll.
Proposed changes to the names of South Tit and Pine Tit mountains in southern Idaho were recently rejected by the national board, upon the unanimous recommendation of three male county commissioners. Ward said she was disheartened by the decision.
“We took a deep sigh when (the commissioners) said the name was not disrespectful to women or any other mammal,” Ward said. “It’s definitely sledding uphill when you’re trying to change names that are derogatory or disparaging to women. You have to take the long-term view. I just hope I live long enough.”
In 2001, the state’s name council went on record with the opinion that squaw is a derogatory term, but the national board gives strong weight to local usage and preferences before making any changes, said Neitzel, with the Idaho State Historical Society. Although some of the changes proposed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe are within the political boundaries of the reservation, most lie within the tribe’s aboriginal territory – places off the reservation historically used for camping, gathering, fishing and hunting.
Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie is against making any name changes in land governed by the county. “We’re changing the names of absolutely everything. I’m basically tired of it,” Currie said. “The public has talked to me about it. Overwhelmingly the residents of Kootenai County don’t want the change.”
Other commissioners could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he also opposes making any name changes to places in his district, which includes numerous squaw references in the St. Joe National Forest. Harwood has voted against measures in the past that would have supported such changes.
“You’re doing away with history when you change some of that stuff,” Harwood said.
Harwood said the word was not originally meant to be offensive. He said pioneers and explorers, including Lewis and Clark, referred to Indian women as squaws out of respect. “It was an honor,” Harwood said, adding, “It’s how you use the word, not what the word means. … It’s funny how words change. Gay used to mean happy.”
Peone, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said she is “shocked” by continued resistance to changing the name. “It was ignorance in the past, but it’s not any longer.”