White elected officials, such as Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie and state Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, don’t get it.
It doesn’t matter what they think the word “squaw” means. Or if they use the word in the best manner possible when they refer to geographical place names in North Idaho. Or if they’re tired of name changes. Or if the name has a debatable background. In the 21st century among American Indian tribes – including the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce and Kootenai of the Idaho Panhandle – the term is universally regarded as a derogatory reference to female genitalia.
Not only does it have to go away, but it is going away. Montana has expunged 20 of what the tribes call “S-words” from geographical places. Washington has deleted four. Idaho already has made four changes, most on the Nez Perce Reservation. Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters, spurred by its Idaho chapter, has embraced this issue as an important cause. Momentum is building to eliminate the smear on this nation’s Indian tribes.
As a result, two things should be done: Local elected officials whose districts include or border Indian reservations should eschew 19th-century thinking about the word “squaw” and support name changes. On the other hand, the tribes should consider their non-Indian neighbors and our collective history when searching for appropriate replacement names. It would help non-Indians accept the changes if they are able to pronounce and spell the new place names.
Now, the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe is pressing to delete the word from 13 place names found in its aboriginal territory in the Inland Northwest.
Spokesman-Review staff writer James Hagengruber reported it isn’t easy to change a place name. The state names council must recommend the change to a national board, which considers local use and seeks input from local politicians before accepting the change. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names makes the final decision.
In the Coeur d’Alenes’ situation, Benewah County commissioners decided to take no position on proposed name changes, according to the St. Maries Gazette Record. Although it’s neutral, the Benewah County position is better than the one taken by Commissioner Currie, who said he’s “basically tired” of “changing the names of absolutely everything.” Believe it or not, Currie’s position is better than the one held by state St. Maries Republican Harwood.
Harwood insists that “squaw” is a name of “honor” and opposes name changes, especially if the substitute word is in an Indian dialect. Harwood told the Gazette Record, “If we’re going to change the names of those places, we should change them to English and not Indian because we speak English in this state.”
Harwood should begin looking into ways to change the names of the two big lakes that touch his far-flung District 2: Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille.
The public should have no trouble pronouncing the Coeur d’Alenes’ suggested change for Squaw Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene: “Neachen Bay.” Neachen is a Coeur d’Alene reference for a place where deer were forced into the water to be killed. Nor should there be a problem with the recommended name for Squaw Creek in the St. Joe National Forest: “Chimeash,” the tribe’s term for “young woman of good character.”
But Q’emiln (ka-mee-lin) Park in Post Falls is a place that many non-Indians still can’t pronounce.
With support from local elected officials and care on the part of the tribes, the transition to the new names can proceed smoothly.
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