By Mark Miller
Joanna Bastian, community member and journalist, requested an interview of me on behalf of the Methow Valley News after the 2014 Carlton Complex fires. That interview led to a series of articles that helped illustrate the “Indian” perspective about the Methow People.
After a time of gained confidence and demonstrated understanding of Indian Culture, she broached the topic of the words, Squaw Creek. Is it offensive? I laughed, which made her uneasy. I quickly apologized. It instantly brought two incidents to mind. First, an explanation by my grandfather when I was age 5, then, a bloody nose I received at age 12.
I explained “squaw” is a white word, not an Indian word. To white people, it means “Indian woman.” To Indian women, it is offensive and disrespectful. As a 5-year-old traveling up the Methow Valley with my grandfather, he explained this to me after I read the sign for Squaw Creek. “So, why is it called Squaw Creek?” I asked. He responded, “Because, the white man couldn’t speak Indian very well, so when told the Indian name of the place, ‘Swaram’, he changed it to ‘Squaw.’”
Next, at age 12, a senior boy provoked me by saying, “Your sister is going to make a good “squaw.’” I immediately jumped on him with the fury of an enraged bobcat. We were both bloodied. If you were keeping score, I probably lost. Twelve to 15 years later at the Pateros Apple Pie Jamboree he approached me, gesturing to let him speak. “I have always been ashamed of what I said about your sister, I respect her and your family. Please accept my apology.” We shook hands.
When Joanna opened this issue, she asked, “what is the proper way to start?” I suggested that Elaine Timentwa was the eldest Methow woman that would freely talk to this issue from a language and cultural perspective. Elaine confirmed two points: Yes, this word is offensive, and there has always been an Indian name that means “torch light fishing at night.” Swaram Creek is the name of the drainage that describes the traditions and history of that place.
After starting this process the proper “Indian” way, Joanna started the process the proper “white” way. Emotions have been stirred! She has been criticized, threatened and labeled a “newcomer” and an “outsider.” Those opposed cite decades, maybe even 100 years, of history in the Methow Valley. Archaeologist Stan Gough relates that the Methow People have probably lived here for 13,000 years. So, in relative terms of time, Swaram Creek has only been misnamed for about 150 years.
I agreed to support Joanna’s efforts. I gave her permission to refer those that would oppose her to talk to me. I have read most of the letters in protest. I recognize many of those names. Only one person has approached me to tell me how the Indian people should “feel.” After a brief discussion of our shared school, community events, and raising our families in the Methow — until that day he did not realize that “squaw” was demeaning and disrespectful. His name is not on these letters of protest.
It has been pointed out that an Alaskan Native woman is in protest. She lives on Squaw Creek. My mother befriended her because she was Native and she was so far displaced from her family. I am certain on their initial encounters, if she referred to my mother as a “squaw,” they would not have become friends.
I have tried to add some Native perspective to this issue and hope I haven’t offended anyone.
Over the past month I have struggled to find an answer considering the protests against change. This river, valley and communities are the reason we choose to live here. With these shared commonalities, my unanswered question to the protest argument is this: Why do you fight so hard, to offend the Native Methow People?
Mark Miller is a descendent of Methow People.