Proposal to restore native name divides county residents

By K.C. Mehaffey
The Wenatchee World

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Wenatchee World and is reprinted with permission.

When Mark Miller was a young boy growing up in Pateros, he got into a fight with an older boy who had referred to his sister as a “squaw.”

A descendant of the Methow Tribe, Miller had always known the word to be derogatory. Now, he’d like to see the name of Squaw Creek near Methow officially changed to Swaram Creek, the name his ancestors used.

To Taylor Rains — a Chelan firefighter who is part Native American and who grew up on Squaw Creek — the word has no negative connotations.

Changing the name of the creek that he still calls home seems rash and unnecessary, and takes away part of his history. “To my family, it is part of us, it is who we are, it is part of our identity,” he wrote in a statement opposing the name change.

The Washington State Committee on Geographic Names will decide next month whether to recommend changing the name of Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek, a Methow Indian word that describes torch-fishing at night.

The proposal has become a divisive issue in the Methow Valley, and throughout Okanogan County. Initially, some 90 people signed a petition favoring the change.

More recently, opponents submitted their own petition to the committee with 363 names asking to keep the name Squaw Creek.

Many other letters, both for and against, have been submitted.

Spokesman Caleb Maki said there’s been some confusion about the request. The committee will only be considering changing the name of the creek, not the road. A road name-change would be Okanogan County’s jurisdiction.

Maki said the committee can deny the request, grant it, or defer its decision. If it’s approved, the Board on Geographic Names — which is also the Board of the Department of Natural Resources — will make the final decision. Proponents can then make their request at the federal level.

Comments on the proposal are still welcomed.

The request to change Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek was submitted by Joanna Bastian, who writes a column on happenings in the lower Methow Valley for the Methow Valley News.

She said that although her name is on the application as the proponent, she really just acted as a liaison between tribal members, the U.S. Forest Service, and linguists and historians who she had talked to for an article.

She said while making calls on the subject, someone sent her a link to the committee that considers geographic name changes, and she and tribal elder Elaine Timentwa Emerson filled it out together, with input from several others. “It was really a group effort,” she said.

In addition to local residents, many others have offered support for the proposed change to Swaram Creek, including Colville Tribal Chairman Michael Marchand, U.S. Forest Service Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu, The Colville Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Guy Moura, Winthrop’s Shafer Historical Museum President Peter Donahue, and Winthrop historian Richard Hart, who has worked with tribes for 50 years has been an expert witness for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Emerson, who works in the Colville Tribes’ language program, declined to speak about the issue of the name change itself, but went into great detail about the place now known as Squaw Creek, which elders before her referred to as Swaram.

“My mother was from the Methow Tribe, and we were taught by her all the years growing up, all those names up the valley. All the rivers and creeks and mountains, they all had a special name,” she said.

Squaw Creek, she said, was a name used by the first white people who came through. “They were just trying to identify the place,” she said. But her parents and none of the elders were happy about the name Squaw, she said, which to many tribal people connotes a whore or a slave — “a submissive-type person, which Indian people are not.”

Emerson said Swaram isn’t just a creek in the Methow Valley where her people would go to fish at night with torches. “It signifies a time when the salmon run came, and young people went out and they had to go through a rite of passage,” she said.

As part of the proposal, she wrote, “The young ones who were given the task of collecting the light colored stones and placing them in the water were of a certain age celebrating a rite of passage, as was the young person who was selected to light the torch.”

In an interview, she added, “When the men were fishing, they had to stand there and hold the torch all night.”

Rains said his mother, who has lived on Squaw Creek for more than 30 years, is nearly full-blooded Native American, and does not object to the term. He said he identifies as an American Indian.

He said instead of being offended by the word “squaw,” he’d like to see tribal members decide to erase any past negative connotations. “In general, we need to quit demonizing words. It only gives the word more power,” he said.

On a practical level, Rains said his parents own multiple businesses, and a name change would be costly. And, he added, “I find it a waste of time. There are so many other pressing matters.”

Rains added, “Nobody that lives there wants to change it. It’s home. It’ll always be Squaw Creek to me.”

Miller said it’s important to him not to offend anyone who opposes the change, but said it’s hard for someone outside his culture — a Methow descendant growing up in a time when “squaw” became a slur — to understand.

“As my grandfather explained to me,” he said, “it was a word that white people used, and I don’t know why they don’t find it offensive.”

He said it may be true that whoever named it Squaw Creek had no ill-will toward his people. “I don’t believe it’s wrong,” Miller said. “I don’t think you can look at these people and say they were wrong, and mean, and angry. At the time, that was common to the white man. I don’t hold an emotional grudge or misgivings. It was just the way of the times,” he said. “You just didn’t know enough to know you were being disrespectful and insensitive. That has changed.”


Squaw Creek name-change proposal

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names will meet to consider proposed name changes for several geographic features in Washington state, including Squaw Creek. The meeting is from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at 111 Washington St. S.E., Room 172, Olympia. Send comments by email to bogn@dnr.wa.gov or by mail to Committee on Geographic Names, P.O. Box 47030, Olympia, WA 98504-7030.

Comments may be made at the Oct. 31 meeting or submitted in advance no later than 5 p.m., Monday, Oct. 16.