Drawing the line on offensive place names
by guest columnist Thom Powell for OregonLive dot com
The Oregonian's story on the removal of offensive place names was interesting and accurate -- mostly. A few interesting additions: The modern-day movement to change offensive place names began with an Oprah Winfrey show in 1992. A guest on her show declared that use of "squaw" as a place name was offensive. The Oregonian's story explained that the word was derived from an Algonquian name for "woman." More accurately, the translation is said to be something on the order of "female reproductive parts."
They were a hardy bunch, but the early settlers were not always literate, and they definitely weren't politically correct. They doubtless used disparaging terms for females of all races, including their own. Yet, "squaw" was not meant to demean or offend when it was assigned to plants (squawberry, squawroot), places (Squawback Ridge, Squaw Butte), and people, male or female. Interestingly, a white man who took an Indian bride was a "squawman."
Consciousness-raising began with a 1992 episode of the daytime talk show "Oprah." Guest and Native American activist Suzan Harjo, appealed for change to demeaning names used by professional sports teams (think: Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta) even though such names are intended to convey generally positive images of warrior-like fierceness.
In any case, Harjo bolstered her position by invoking other linguistic insults such as use of the word "squaw." Not being an expert in Algonquian herself (she is Cheyenne), Harjo cited a 1972 book, "Literature of the American Indian," in which the authors raised the dubious claim that the word referred to female genetalia in the Naraganset dialect of the Algonquian Nation.
In truth, it is not at all clear which of several words has been anglicized into "squaw," but "eskwaw," "esqua" and "ojiskw" are all possibilities. Other Algonquian tribes used "squa." By the way, the Algonquian term for white settlers was "wasichu." How would that do as a team name? Anyone want tickets to see the Washington Wasichu play?
In any event, leave it to explorers and settlers to phoeneticize and simplify tricky pronunciations, then carry them westward, but the story probably doesn't end there. No Indian in western North America ever named a place using Algonquian terms, but white explorers and settlers may have.
Why places such as the remote Squaw Butte in Clackamas County would be so named is less clear. Did an explorer see a female Indian there? That's possible, but I doubt it. My own research suggests that another Indian term in use more locally may have been confused and simplified into the handier term "squaw."
Squaw Butte sits within the lands once occupied by the Clackamas band of the Chinook Indians. Nearby, the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific coast used the term Tsonoqua. This term, also spelled "Tsonokwa," translates into "a wild, very hairy female being with big feet."
Another put down? I don't think so. Rather, it's a reference to a female "sesquac" or sasquatch, as we call them today. The "tsonoqua" was a female bigfoot, and while the concept of the sasquatch or bigfoot is much ridiculed in modern society, the Indians in virtually all parts of North America had terms to describe these elusive and mysterious beings. As it turns out, Squaw Mountain lies in a remote location in the Mount Hood National Forest where the legend of the sasquatch persists to the present.
Pioneering research on this point, done by Molalla resident Frank Kaneaster, even identifies Squaw Butte as being at the center of a cluster of modern sasquatch sightings. My own research bolsters Kaneaster's dubious data set with two more sightings by local hunters who emphatically claim that a sasquatch is what they saw while hunting the flanks of Squaw Mountain.
When one examines the places in Oregon alone that bear (or once did) the name "Squaw", they all bear an interesting similarity: They are remote, even by today's standards, and so were even more remote in the days of early wasichu (white) settlement. They are surrounded by other place names that hearken of the mysterious wild beings: Devil's Ridge, Devil's Lake, Skookum Lake, Tarzan Springs, Skookum Meadow, Diablo Mountain and more.
Virtually all North American tribes embrace the wildman or sasquatch phenomenon. They uniformly regard these beings not as animals but people, member of a mysterious but very real tribe. And if the sasquatch, or skookums, exists then there are females, for which one of the local terms was Tsonoqua. This is a more likely origin for the word "squaw" when referencing remote geographical places in the Pacific Northwest that were actually named by the Indians, not the wasichu.
I guess it doesn't matter anymore. The Forest Service has removed the name from the creek and its parent butte. It is now known as Tumalo Creek and Tumalo Butte, which, in the Klamath dialect, means either "wild plum" or "cold water," depending on which translation one accepts. A strange choice considering the Klamath Indians didn't live around here, and the name "Tumalo" is already prominent in central Oregon. It's also kind of a boring name. I mean, "Coldwater Creek"? "Wild Plum Butte"? C'mon, guys, is that the best you could do? If we're going to change the name, how about reverting to "Tsonoqua"? It's probably the original name for the place, and laugh if you will, but the place does have a history of reported sasquatch encounters to back it up. The Indians don't laugh, but they don't discuss their feelings on the subject with the wasichu either. They know all too well our tendency to label unfamiliar beings as animals, then use that as an excuse to shoot them.
Tsonoqua may be an old name, but it is not as easy to spell or pronounce as is "squaw." The nice thing about "Tsonoqua" is that if some of the locals don't like it, they can just slur it, and it will sound like the traditional wasichu name. That's probably the way Squaw Butte got its name in the first place. Now, if I could just get on "Oprah," I know I could change people's minds.
Thom Powell lives in rural Clackamas County, Oregon and teaches sciences at Robert Gray Middle School in Portland. He is the author of "The Locals: A Contemporary Investigation of the Bigfoot/Sasquatch Phenomenon."
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