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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin 2: What’s in a name?

A Seattle legislator who is running for an open congressional seat suggested recently Washington review all names of places that could be considered racially or ethnically offensive, and change them.

Democratic Sen. Pramila Jayapal listed at least 48 places in Washington that carry a name some could find offensive. Slightly more than half use the term squaw. Washington has at least five Squaw Creeks in various counties, three Squaw Lakes, Squaw Islands in Klickitat and Clark counties, plus a Squaw Mountain, a Squaw Butte and a Squaw Peak. There are also four Coon Creeks, a Coon Island and Coon Bay on her list.

It seems one could make a case for some name changes based on reducing confusion or an embarrassing lack of originality by cartographers.

Some people familiar with Native American languages argue the term squaw is not, in itself, offensive. As an Algonquian word it means woman, not a particular part of the female anatomy. It depends on how it’s used, and in some cases whether the place is being named for a particular Native American woman who lived there.

As for the places named “coon”, it’s probably naive to suggest they got the label because there were so many raccoons in the neighborhood.

The state Committee on Geographic Names considers such changes. It meets twice a year, and in May will take up a proposal to change Squaw Bay on Shaw Island. The suggested replacement is Sq’emenen Bay, the Lummi tribe’s name for the area. If it goes through, may satisfy concerns about a possible racial slur. And become the most misspelled place name in the state.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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