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Offensive Oregon place names have been slow to change. Here's why.

David Lewis is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.
Karen Richards
David Lewis is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued orders November 19th declaring the word “squaw” derogatory and establishing a faster way to change offensive place names. Oregon has had a similar rule since 2001, but over 50 features here still use the name.

David Lewis, a professor at Oregon State and consultant to the Oregon Geographic Names Board, said name changes require time for research and tribal collaboration. He’s happy about the national order but cautions, “If they really want this to happen, they would offer some sort of funding that we could pay people for sometimes hours and hours and hours of work, looking through the languages trying figure out an appropriate replacement either back to the original name, or to a name that we create based on the characteristics of the site.”

The order says, quote, “In general, members of the committee will serve without compensation.” Lewis said the changes need to happen, and with state or federal funding, it could be done in a year or so.

Each location in Oregon requires an official proposal for a new name. Proposals are presented to the Name Board, which recommends them for approval, rejection or deferral. In June 2021, Oregon had five place names with the “S” word under review. The Board deferred, or had requests for further investigation of, all five changes.

Karen Richards joined KLCC as a volunteer reporter in 2012, and became a freelance reporter at the station in 2015. In addition to news reporting, she’s contributed to several feature series for the station, earning multiple awards for her reporting.