By Joanna Bastian
If a person’s eyes are the windows to the soul, then their hands must certainly be the doors. It is said, “actions speak louder than words.”
In 1889, thousands of young men swarmed into the Methow Valley to join the mining effort. Mining camps developed overnight in every drainage. One such rough crowd called their mining camp Squaw Creek, a derogative term for native women.
In 1899 this settlement disbanded as quickly as it started. Now older, married and with children, the people moved to sunny plateaus along the river to plant orchards and farms. They dismantled the school and took it with them, building a steepled church across the street from the transplanted school. They took everything but the mining camp name, opting instead to rename their community Methow. Their actions spoke louder than that word.
The derogative meaning of the word “squaw” is found in literature from the 1880s. In 1887, a young pioneer by the name of U.E. Fries came to Okanogan County to find his fortune. He wrote about his experiences in From Copenhagen to Okanogan. Fries worked as a logger, carried mail by horseback to Silver and Winthrop, and later became a homesteader and established a literary society. He wrote many newspaper articles on pioneer history and political issues.
His book tells of many adventures in the Methow Valley, and most place names and family names will be familiar to readers. The hard part to stomach is not his adventures, but his actions that speak louder than words, and the words he uses to describe the victims of his actions. He has many tales of cheating Indians who tried to share their resources with all the newcomers. Fries gloats of his lies to one Indian man: “I put on a very woebegone expression … His old face began to beam. Funny! He believed every word I said!”
Fries was less charming in his encounters with Indian women. He is very clear on which women are worthy of being a white man’s wife, and which ones are less than desirable: “The Indian wives of white men in the northern part of the country were much superior to the squaws in the lower country along the Columbia.” His book is rife with hundreds of examples of the contemptuous insult used to describe women he deems stupid and dirty.
An Okanogan Indian, Christal Quintasket, who wrote under the pen name Mourning Dove, was a prolific writer in the 1920s. In one of her writings, she made clear her heroine’s opinion of the word: “If I was to marry a white man and he would dare call me a ‘squaw’ — as an epithet with the sarcasm that we know so well — I believe that I would feel like killing him.”
The American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries describe the term as an “offensive and disparaging word used in contempt to describe an American Indian woman.” The word has always been used to insult women. Within recent years, the uncomfortable truth of this place name played on the national stage.
As fires burned within the region, I attended a community meeting to get an update from fire crews. The crew boss pointed to a map and distinctly said, “McFarland Creek,” while pointing to a different drainage. I asked him to clarify where exactly the fire was. He gave me a long hard look before stating that as these were official communications, they would call it McFarland Creek, “and I shouldn’t have to explain why.” I understood. It’s embarrassing that we hold on to name of a mining camp conceived by young men who had the mindset of a drunken fraternity. Those men left that word behind when they relocated the town, why do we insist on holding on to the word? It is embarrassing that we endorse a word used to shame women based on their gender and heritage.
I asked a Native American woman about that word. She lives just a few miles away from that creek. The term is so offensive, she referred to it as the “s” word, and relayed the ways in which the word was used to shame and belittle even young children in our community. I asked what should that creek be called, and she told me that every place in the Methow Valley has a native place name.
I found a map of native place names. In his book, Native Methow, Improving Prosperity, Jay Miller noted the Methow name of that creek was nwəra•katk (international phonetic alphabet). Jay stated that in 1979, Julian Timentwa told him the translation was “frog in the water.” The Linguistics and History department of the Confederated Tribes is in the process of confirming this place name for their own knowledge.
When the time comes to either reinstate the original place name of this creek, or come up with a new name, I sincerely hope that our community’s actions speak louder than the hurtful word that we have held onto for too long, for no good reason. Honoring the women in our community and doing away with a gender/ethnic insult is not about “political correctness” — it is simply the right thing to do.