By Lynette Westendorf
The Methow Valley is full of history — from the original Methow Native Americans to pioneers and miners and early settlers. The opening of the valley to white settlers has been well documented, and we have celebrated their stories in several books published by the Shafer Museum in Winthrop.
Fortunately, people are also embracing the history of the valley before the settlers came. Writer Joanna Bastian’s recent Lower Valley column (Feb. 22) is a wonderful essay about Elaine Timentwa Emerson, a Methow elder, artist and linguist. In her article, Joanna states that she has undertaken the process of changing the name of Squaw Creek, in the lower valley, to Swaram Creek, which, according to Ms. Timentwa Emerson is the original Methow Indian name for the drainage. I commend Joanna for her interest in honoring the original and first inhabitants of the valley.
The etymology and original meaning of the word “squaw” have been argued for years. Today, the word is considered to be offensive and is labeled as such in modern dictionaries. It was used for generations, in earlier times, to refer to a Native American woman or wife. Perhaps it wasn’t always meant to be insulting, but the context in history books, literature, television and movies always placed the Indian woman as somehow less than elegant, certainly not an educated or skilled woman, definitely not a lady, and she was very often cast as being somehow owned. A “squaw” was not even defined by her motherhood, nor was she a single or independent woman. She was always some man’s wife, attending to her man’s domestic needs, and she was always placed lower than her white counterpart.
Who knows when the people first began to call the drainage north of Pateros by the name Squaw Creek? The early settlers of the area — hard working and resourceful — have all passed on, but the name remains the same.
Perhaps there was no insult intended when the name was first used, but suffice it to say, Squaw Creek ended up as the official name on maps and road signs. Given the connotation of the word, given that none of us would ever call a Native American woman “squaw” to her face, and given that the Methow were the original and most long-term inhabitants of the valley, the renaming of Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek is entirely appropriate. The name change carries no disrespect for the loggers, miners and settlers — both men and women — who lived there.
The renaming of offensive place names has considerable precedence. From New Zealand to Canada, to the American South, and now throughout the West, offensive place names have been removed from public signs and maps. We all know the words, and if a word is offensive to any group of people, or if it was used to disrespect them at some earlier time in history, then, out of respect for those people — even if they are only a few — then it should be removed from maps and signage. Save these words for literature, when the reality of their power can be discussed honestly in light of both human ignorance and human goodness.
You may find yourself asking, why should we remove a word from a sign or map if we don’t personally find it offensive? What if we personally don’t carry prejudice against the people who find it offensive? What if we didn’t have anything to do with the naming the first place? The simple reason is one of respect. If the term “squaw” was used for a century or two to demean Native American women, then it is only right that we, today, correct that mistake and honor those women by renaming the site by a more appropriate name.
To change a place name, an application must be filed with the Washington State Committee on Geographic Place Names. With Elaine Timentwa Emerson’s approval, as well as that of the chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribe’s Business Council, Michael Marchand, and other Methows who currently live in the valley, Joanna Bastian has begun the application process to change the name of Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek. If you would like to add your name to the application in a show of support, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, physical address, phone number, email address, and a brief description of your association with and knowledge of the area.
Lynette Westendorf lives in Winthrop.