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County Official Wants Frontier Family Place Names Over Indian Ones

Don Hann, USDA Forest Service

Earlier this year, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names determined that 13 sites in Oregon’s Grant County would drop the word “squaw”.   This aligns with a 2001 state law banning the word for public areas.  Now as KLCC’s Brian Bull in Eugene reports, a county official hopes the federal government will allow two place names to be used over those proposed by local Indian tribes. 

The federal government has approved “Wiwaanaytt Creek” and “Wiwaanaytt Meadow” for two places formerly containing the word “squaw”.  But Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton says he’d like the feds to review and approve a couple alternates. He’d like to see the sites named for the Sullens family that have been in the area since the 1800s.

“We don’t have anything against Native American names whatsoever," says Britton. "We just want it to be authentic, with historical, geographic relevance to it.”

Britton says if they can use “Sullens” for a couple sites, they’ll be fine with the other 11 new and approved place names.  But despite earlier suggestions, Grant County’s unlikely to sue the feds over the issue.   

"I’m not going to waste the county’s money, trying to chase a windmill, so to speak.”

Both Britton and tribal officials agree that taking on the federal government over the matter would be an uphill battle.  And Chuck Sams, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, says he’s just glad to see the word “squaw” gone.  He says it’s an Algonquin word carried over by settlers traveling west to the Oregon territory.

Credit Don Hann, USDA Forest Service
Wiwaanaytt Meadow in Grant County. Some locals want the federal government to approve "Sullens Meadow", according to Boyd Britton, a county commissioner.

“Along the way, the word has been subjugated to more morphing in a derogatory or obscene way, in describing native women,” says Sams.

Grant County officials expect to hear from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names later this summer on their proposed alternate place names.

Brian Bull’s reporter’s notebook:

Place names reflect the values and attitudes of their era.  Through the last few decades, many states have moved to change place names within their borders, revisiting words and terms that were bestowed on geographic sites over the last 200 years that are seen now as racially, ethnically or culturally offensive.  These include “squaw”, “negro”, “Jap”, as well as sexual references...and they often top the U.S. Board of Geolographic Names' lists of proposed place name changes...


It's not a quick process. In the early 2000s, South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow pushed legislation to remove offensive place names from the map, which included many references to “squaw”.  As News Director for South Dakota Public Radio then, I recall his impassioned call to drop the term and help better tribal relations.  More than a decade later, lawmakers are trying to work with the federal government and tribes to find suitable names that reflect the historical and cultural heritage of a place, with hit-or-miss results:


“Squaw” ranks alongside “Redskin” and “Injun” for terms offensive to many Native Americans.  The term is deemed not only racist, but misogynist as critics say it’s become equivalent to “whore” or a crude reference to female genitalia.  The majority of native scholars I’ve talked to say it’s an Algonquin term for "woman" that has only degenerated the further west it traveled, with pioneers using it generously for many features.  Some examples are pretty strange, including “Little Squaw Humper Table” and the infamous “Squaw’s Tit” that was found in a number of states for a while (one still exists in Alberta, Canada).

Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton says he agrees “squaw” is offensive, and it doesn’t have any relevance to any of the renamed sites in his county.  But he’s hoping that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will approve a move backed by him and other locals to have Wiwaanaytt Meadow and Wiwaanaytt Creek (formerly Squaw Meadow and Squaw Creek) renamed for the Sullens family.  Britton says the Sullens arrived in the area during the mid-1800s and still have descendants living in the county today.  Plus, he adds the Indian names – based on the Umatilla and NezPerce language -- are difficult to pronounce and he can’t find evidence that either tribe resided in or near the places being disputed.

Chuck Sams, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, says it ironic that people complain about the pronunciation of the Indian names, given native people have had to learn foreign and exotic names bestowed on familiar sites by settlers and colonists.  He points out that native people had their own place names that were obscured or ignored during westward expansion  (and for those who are curious, Teara Lynn Farrow-Ferman -- program manager for the Confederated Tribes’ cultural resources protection department – says Wiwaanaytt is pronounced wee-WAH-nite.)

As to relevance, it’s tricky to pinpoint with complete certainty just where tribes inhabited a place on a map.  While many can be linked to specific areas, tribes often moved in response to natural disasters, the seasons, hunting and fishing prospects, and warfare, to name a few reasons.   

While suggestions of possible legal action were hinted at earlier this spring, Britton says he doubts he’ll pursue a lawsuit against the federal government if the county’s proposed names aren’t approved.  He says there are better ways to use Grant County’s money. 

Meanwhile, work continues to highlight – and remove – offensive place names.  Online are directories of existing sites, which are not shy of material:


But some efforts are being challenged, either by those who dismiss them as “political correctness” taken to extremes, or by some who feel that erasing such names would also erase local heritage.

As to all the controversy that's surrounded efforts in Oregon, the removal of “squaw” from public areas is in accordance to a 2001 state law.   At the time it was enacted, the New York Times reported 170 sites in Oregon that had the term.


Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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