Library of Congress

No More Squaw Bay: Name Change Coming

Richard Walker

A Washington state committee will give final consideration in May to changing the name of Squaw Bay, on Shaw Island, to a Lummi Nation place name for the island.

Many more changes could follow.

Last fall, state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, worked with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and a resident to have a lake and creek in Chelan County renamed for a 19th century African-American pioneer. The lake and creek formerly bore a name considered to be offensive.

And in January, Jayapal sent a letter to state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Peter Goldmark asking that his department review and coordinate the re-naming of places that bear names commonly accepted as ethnically or racially offensive.

“We can’t change the past, but we can change our course so as not to repeat our past mistakes,” Jayapal said in an announcement of her request. “No injustice should be below our notice … While some of these creeks or lakes may be in remote places, they stand as a constant reminder of times when women, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and others were thought of and treated as less than a whole and autonomous person. It is pretty incredible that in 2016 we still have dozens of racist and offensive place names on record in our state.”

According to her office, more than 1,400 places in the U.S. contain racial slurs, including at least 48 in Washington.

A “Coon Creek” in King County will be the first to be addressed for a change, Jayapal’s office reported. “An immediate focus will also turn to other places around the state containing the word ‘coon’ as well as those with ‘squaw’ and ‘Jim Crow’ – which is a derogatory 19th century minstrel character that became symbolic of segregation and black suppression laws in the South.”

Jayapal said she hopes the first set of names will be changed in 2016.

The process to change names on official geographic maps is initiated by the public; anyone who wishes to make a change can initiate it by filling out a form and delivering it to the state Committee on Geographic Names.

Among the community-initiated changes on the committee’s May 19 agenda: renaming Squaw Bay on Shaw Island, one of the San Juan Islands in the middle of the Salish Sea, to Sq’emenen Bay. Hereditary chief Tsilixw James said Sq’emenen – pronounced sqe-men-en – is the Lummi name for Shaw Island, which is part of Lummi’s historical territory. The change will then go to the state Board on Geographic Names for final approval.

Supporters of the change to Sq’emenen Bay include the three-member San Juan County Council; Jeff Morris, Tsimshian, who represents the San Juan Islands in the state House of Representatives; Maurice John, president of the Seneca Nation, which succeeded in getting an offensive name changed for an island in Seneca territory; and several council members from Coast Salish nations.

A lifelong resident of Shaw Island wrote to the state committee that she is “very ashamed and upset” by the name Squaw Bay, and that changing the name to Sq’emenen Bay would “inspire us to think more about the history of Shaw, and the people who were here before we were.”

Asked by the state committee for comment on the name change, Tara Wallace of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine chart division reported having “no objection to the proposal.”

The name Sq’emenen Bay is not without detractors. One resident of Shaw Island called the effort to rename the bay “a waste of time and money”; another referred to the effort as a “political correctness campaign.” A member of the island school board who once served as county public works director wrote, “Naming a place something offensive to someone somewhere is not the same as calling someone who might be offended by that name.”

Jayapal disagreed. “The fact is, words matter. These names would not be used in conversation today and there is no reason to keep them alive in locations in our state. Instead of clinging to relics of an intolerant past, let’s rename these places so they celebrate the people and cultures that made Washington into the wonderful place it is today.”

More than half of the offensive place names in Washington contain the word “Squaw.” Jayapal is asking the state’s 29 federally recognized Native Nations for input, including suggestions for alternative names that have historical significance.

According to anthropologist Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Abenaki, the word “squaw” is derived from an Algonkian word that was misused as a racialized epithet. She wrote in her 1999 essay, “Reclaiming ‘squaw’ in the name of the ancestors,” “During the late 19th century, Algonkian words that had come into common usage among Americans were carried west, by French fur traders and other whites … During westward expansion, ‘chief,’ ‘brave,’ ‘papoose,’ and ‘squaw’ took on negative connotations as they were increasingly used as generic descriptions and epithets. The misuse of ‘squaw’ was further spread by early 20th century movies and children's books that depicted stereotypes and ‘savage Indians.’”

Of place names, she wrote in the same essay, “Every river, mountain, valley, and plain, every plant and every animal, every living being on this continent was known to the original inhabitants … If the real goal is [to] preserve that history, then the solution is easy – encourage the local Native Nations to rename these places in their original languages …”

She added, “I feel we would do best to argue for revision of place names in the name of historical accuracy, tribal sovereignty, and basic respect, since ‘squaw’ is neither historically nor linguistically appropriate as a universal term to apply to Native women … We can claim the opportunity to recover original indigenous place names, reinforce respect for local indigenous histories, and support Native language reclamation efforts."

Map of sites with place names considered to be offensive can be found here.

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Wanda Logan Howard
Wanda Logan Howard
Submitted by Wanda Logan Howard on
Just my opinion: If the senator, thinks names should be changed, she's in for a huge undertaking. The title 'Squaw' has ALWAYS meant something very special to me. I do not find it offensive in any way. To me it has always identified an American Indian woman, the one who is responsible for keeping her household in order and teaching her children, if she has children, to always respect and live the good life of an American Indian. If the senator finds it offensive then she better get busy removing and changing ALL the names women are referred to from every venue such as and including: wife, mother, woman, lady, female, etc., I mean 'Lady Finger Cookies' ? What's with that and who's being offended by THAT I wonder. All these names identify the particular woman same as the name Squaw does... I've always felt 'Squaw' was a title of pride for a proud American Indian woman...maybe I'm wrong, but that's the way I feel. The Senator needs to pay attention to real problems in her state and the country than the name of a pond of water... Just sayin'...