By Joanna Bastian
Elaine Timentwa Emerson is an accomplished artist. Her woven cedar baskets are displayed in museums throughout the Pacific Northwest, and she teaches traditional weaving practices with several organizations. Elaine is also a language instructor for the Colville Confederated Tribes. As an expert linguist and respected elder, Elaine is a valuable resource in preserving history and culture for the Pacific Northwest region.
On her mother’s side, Elaine is a Methow descendant. Her mother, Julian Timentwa, was born after the Methow people were moved to the reservation in the Okanogan Valley, but the family maintained close ties to the Methow Valley. Every season, several times a year, the family would come to the Methow Valley to gather food and share stories about this place. As Elaine shared these stories, she paused and smiled. “It was during these times that we learned about the valley, the landscape, and the people,” she said.
The Buttermilk area was called the “Gardens,” for the plentiful food that grew in the meadows. Gold Creek was known for its abundance of trout and was called “Mountain Trout.” Libby Creek was called the “Drying Place,” because there were hollowed-out places along the banks that were perfect for drying berries in the sun. Elaine said the Elbow Coulee area was called “The Drum,” for its excellent acoustics. During the day, families would gather bitterroot, and at night everyone would come together for a meal.
“After the meal the men would sing, and the songs would echo throughout the coulee,” Elaine said, gesturing widely with her arms as she reminisced about these gatherings with family and friends.
Squaw Creek was called “swaR’a-tátkʷ”(using the International Phonetic Alphabet). The first part of the word, “swaR’a,” defines the activity of fishing at night using a lighted torch. The second half of the word, “tátkʷ,” identifies a body of water. Elaine explained, “The children would gather light-colored rocks and place them in the water, so the fishermen could see the dark colored fish clearly. At night, one person would hold a lighted torch above the water. The fish would swim into the light and the fishermen would catch them,” she said, making a jabbing motion with her fist, “with their spears.”
In an earlier article, I had referenced a book that was not vetted by the language department of the Confederated Tribes, and incorrectly identified that Squaw Creek was originally named “Frog Creek.” This information was in error. Elaine provided a far more detailed and reliable account identifying the original place name of the drainage as “swaR’a-tátkʷ.” It could be that the current name was a mispronunciation of the original name. When I asked if Elaine would support a name change back to the original name, she nodded her head in agreement and clarified that “swara” does not stand alone as a complete word, but if you place an “m” at the end, it does. She suggested the place name be “Swaram Creek.” This choice is supported by the Methows who currently live in the Methow Valley just south of Squaw Creek, and by the chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribe business council, Michael Marchand.
It is a mistaken belief that the derogatory word “squaw” is an Indian word meaning woman. The respectful word is either the Chinook trade language word, “kloochiman,” or a word from the Salish language. Amongst Methows, there is not a singular Salish word to indicate the fairer sex, but rather a colorful collection of prefixes and suffixes attached to the root word, “tkəɫmiɫxʷ.” The word has a pronounced “ka” at the beginning, and two syllables in the middle with a soft l sound. It sounds a little bit like “kalmilkch.”
To change a place name, an application must be filed with the Washington State Committee on Geographic Place Names. With Elaine’s approval, I’ve 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.