Some local folks are ready to circle the wagons rather than see the word "squaw" taken off a bunch of features in Grant County. Perhaps it's time to take a deep breath and pick our battles - or at least set realistic parameters for those battles.
The issue arose because the Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation proposed renaming 14 creeks, trails and other features that now bear "squaw" names in Grant County. All those features, as well as Indian Rock, would be renamed using words from a Native American language.
The Oregon Geographic Names Board is considering the proposal, but the final say is up to a federal naming board. The state panel is pushing for input now because production of a new federal map is imminent.
There are strong feelings on all sides of the issue, but a couple of facts need to be faced. First, while there isn't universal agreement about the meaning of the word "squaw," it lost favor quite a while ago in circles larger than our local region. There are both federal and state directives that call for removing the word as offensive to Native Americans in general, and women in particular.
Some folks say the word didn't start out as offensive, and that any derogatory meaning that developed has become neutralized with time and common usage. They've got a point - Language is fluid, and slang terms can be accepted over time. But the pendulum of public acceptance swings both ways, and some terms gain and then lose favor with shifts in racial and cultural understanding. Remember, just as in harassment cases, offense is usually determined by the folks who are the target of the term, not the folks who use it without a second thought or even a mean intent.
In one popularized take on its linguistic roots, "squaw" is a shortened version of a word for a part of the female anatomy or in slang terminology, a crude reference to the same that is applied as a derogatory name for a Native American woman. There's no question that this particular translation is nasty. Put simply, if you called Grandma by the English-slang equivalent, she'd wash your mouth out with soap every day for a week. Although that definition is strenuously disputed in some quarters, the term continues to have a derogatory taint.
This is not to say that the names proposed by the Umatilla Tribes are the right way to go. Critics are correct to note that the proposed names aren't universally understood even among native speakers, who have a diversity of dialects to choose from. In addition, the pronunciation and punctuation are challenging, the latter especially so when using a conventional keyboard.
Against that backdrop, we urge Grant County residents to oppose the Umatilla proposal - but also to get involved in the renaming process, which undoubtedly will continue. As part of that process, we suggest that the county:
? Object to any change for Indian Rock, a name that is neither derogatory nor pejorative. While Indian may be considered an old-style identification - like saying one is "Caucasian" instead of "white" - it nonetheless is accepted without protest in many other situations, even by Native American groups including the Umatilla.
? Insist that the board consider new names, in English, that reflect either the terrain and geography or historic incidents suited to the features.
? Request that a final decision on any name changes be delayed, map or no map, to give more time for the public to consider alternatives that will be acceptable to all the residents and cultures represented in the region today. This isn't the last time the feds will redo the maps, and it should be more important to conduct a fair process than to rush things to meet an arbitrary publication deadline. Remember, one group imposing its will on another is what got us to this juncture in the first place.
Given more time, the county could form a citizen committee to study possible names and make its own counterproposal, bringing current local perspective to the discussion. It would be great if that process could involve youth and the schools. Imagine the lessons this would support in geography, history, politics, literature and more. In the end, our youth will inherit the results of this process, so it seems natural to let them participate now.
In the final analysis, change is hard. Other counties have grappled with this issue, dealt with similar revisions - and survived. Overall, it's hard to see Grant County successfully defending "squaw" in the current climate, and it's also hard to see that being our finest hour. Just eight months ago, this county drew accolades from across the nation for its strong stand in defense of tolerance, diversity and respect for all people. That's a concept worth revisiting, whatever role we take on in this process.