Effort to remove ‘squaw’ from names of 18 places in WA risks ‘erasing women, history of land’

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A federal effort to change what are described as derogatory names for some places in Washington is causing concern that alternatives could erase the history of Indigenous people.

The effort goes back years, but in February, the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a list of places where names would be replaced.

The 660 geographic features — such as lakes, creeks and mountains — contain the word “squaw,” which was deemed to be derogatory to Indigenous women.

There are 18 locations across 14 counties in Washington that could have their names changed.

The state interior department has created a process to come up with alternate names that appears to be based on nearby geographic locations. Something from those locations will be used to replace the word “squaw.”

When the issue came up for Washington’s Board of Natural Resources, there was concern that the new naming scheme might erase the land’s connection to Indigenous women and their history and contributions.

“When you have a name in a very, very, flawed and imperfect way commemorating Indigenous women, and you go and you pick another nearby place off the landscape, what you end up doing, the result that you end up with, you end up erasing those women and their history on the land. I’m sure that’s not the secretary’s intent, but unfortunately, that methodology creates this problem,” said Washington State Department of Natural Resources archaeologist Sara Palmer.

The state has the power to name areas and landmarks and there has been a strong suggestion that the name changes can’t go forward without public input.

Some people feel that some aspects of Indigenous women — whether individual women or their roles in history — should be included in renaming the locations.

The geographic features being considered for renaming are:

  • Squaw Butte in Skamania County
  • Squaw Canyon in Lincoln County
  • Squaw Creek Ridge in Chelan and Okanogan counties
  • Squaw Creek in Clallam County
  • Squaw Creek in Jefferson County
  • Squaw Creek in Okanogan County
  • Squaw Creek in Skamania County
  • Squaw Creek in Stevens County
  • Squaw Island in Clark County
  • Squaw Islands in Klickitat County
  • Squaw Lake in Chelan County
  • Squaw Lake in Kittitas County
  • Squaw Lake in Pierce County
  • Squaw Lake in Skamania County
  • Squaw Mountain in Okanogan County
  • Squaw Peak in Columbia County
  • Squaw Spring in Garfield County Squaw Valley in Pend Oreille County

The Washington State Committee on Geographic Names is taking comments on the issue until April 25.

Feedback can be submitted via email at bogn@dnr.wa.gov or at the April 7 special committee meeting.