Action moves original ‘Swaram Creek’ name closer to adoption
By Marcy Stamper
A state committee has approved a name change for Squaw Creek south of Methow, bringing it one step closer to being rechristened as Swaram Creek, the original name used by Native Americans.
The change to Swaram Creek was approved by six members of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names at a hearing in Olympia on Oct. 31. There was one abstention.
After testimony from several locals in favor of the name change, the board readily decided to restore the old name, according to Mark Miller, a Methow descendant who testified at the hearing.
“It seemed to me that everyone got the point that ‘Squaw’ was offensive — no one was arguing,” said Miller after the hearing. “It made sense to me and to them — it wasn’t that complicated a process.”
While the committee noted the advantage of being able to restore a historic name, the key factor in their decision was the fact that “Squaw” is widely viewed as offensive term
Because language changes over time, some generations don’t realize there’s a problem, said committee member Allyson Brooks, director of the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation at the hearing. “‘Squaw’ is a problem,” she said.
“This committee recognizes the state of Washington is not willing to have a racial slur on a public map,” said Mary Schaff, who represents the Washington State Library on the committee.
Testimony at the hearing reinforced that view. Richard Hart, a historian from Winthrop who works with Indian tribes, read a statement from a Smithsonian Institution linguist at the hearing that said, “Everyone will recognize [Squaw’s] use to refer to Native Americans as demeaning or colossally ignorant.”
The Swaram Creek proposal was submitted this spring by Joanna Bastian on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a linguist for the Colvilles, and several local residents. It drew an unusual amount of public input, both pro and con, said Caleb Maki, executive secretary for the committee.
“Since I’ve been doing this, this is the second time in my career I’ve been able to fill up an entire file with comments,” he said.
Bastian, who writes a column about the Lower Valley for the Methow Valley News, mentioned it in her column. As the proposal became more well known through articles and letters in the media, it attracted dozens of letters of support and hundreds of signatures on a petition.
Others wrote to object to the change, and a petition opposing Swaram Creek also drew hundreds of signatures.
Barbara Rains, who lives on Squaw Creek, submitted an alternative proposal to change the name of Squaw Creek to Hunter Creek a few weeks before the Oct. hearing. Rains said “Swaram Creek” had no relevance to their community and proposed Hunter Creek — for a nearby mountain and the area’s popularity with hunters — as a compromise. No one testified at the hearing in favor of Hunter Creek.
Because the Hunter Creek request was for the same geographic feature, the committee discussed postponing the decision on Swaram Creek to give people an opportunity to weigh in on Hunter Creek. The committee meets twice a year.
The committee member who abstained said he supported the Swaram Creek change but wanted to delay a final recommendation so people could comment on Hunter Creek. But another said the rationale for Hunter Creek was not persuasive because the proponents said they didn’t want to rename Squaw Creek but, if it had to change, wanted Hunter Creek instead.
In the end, with the extensive documentation submitted by proponents and widespread support for Swaram Creek, the committee was eager to take a vote.
The Swaram Creek proposal was unusual because it received so much coverage in the local media and drew a large amount of written input and in-person testimony, said Maki.
Mark Miller, whose family still lives on their ancestral land near the mouth of the Methow River, told the commission the Methow people had inhabited the area for 13,000 years.
In emotional testimony, Miller recalled learning about Squaw Creek from his grandfather when he was 5 years old. His grandfather said they’d never change the name “because the white man didn’t care about offending Indian people.”
“I think today is a tribute, and a contradiction of what my grandfather taught when I was 5. And the opportunity to be here today is actually more emotional than I thought it would be,” said Miller.
Hart read a letter at the hearing from Elaine Timentwa Emerson, a linguist for the Colville Tribes. Timentwa Emerson described the history of native place names throughout the Methow Valley. Swar’am means “torch fishing,” which describes a rite of passage, she said.
Timentwa Emerson also pointed to the serious practical implications of retaining the offensive name “Squaw.” During 2015 wildfire, firefighters had a base camp at Squaw Creek but referred to it publicly as McFarland Creek, which is 5 miles north, because they felt “Squaw” was derogatory, she said.
“That endorsed the fact that there is something very wrong with that word. And we certainly do need a change,” she wrote.
Chuck Borg grew up near Black Canyon in the 1940s and ’50s, a fourth-generation descendant of a white family who homesteaded in the Methow. “The Squaw Creek drainage was my playground. I have the scars to prove it,” he said.
“Hunter is still a white-man name. I think we owe it to the native people to restore what they knew,” Borg told the committee.
Both the Colville Tribe’s History and Archaeology Department and the Colville Business Council submitted letters supporting the return to the original Salish name.
Citing “a long history of honoring Native American Tribes and indigenous peoples,” the Methow Valley Ranger District also wrote a letter supporting the name change.
The Keene and Rains families, who live on Squaw Creek, opposed the change. They feared renaming Squaw Creek would be a first step toward renaming many local creeks and roads, calling it “political correctness-mania.”
Barbara Rains, whose parents moved to Squaw Creek 35 years ago, said her mother is native and doesn’t support changing the name. Renaming the creek would take away the identity of the place they call home, she said.
The name change wasn’t supported by a majority of people in the Squaw Creek drainage and would be costly for residents who’d have to change their address and other documents, they said. Just a few people live on Squaw Creek Road.
If approved, the Swaram Creek name change would apply only to the creek, not the road. Renaming the road requires action from Okanogan County, said Maki.
“It’s the Indian way to bring the community together and have each side state its case, but it’s not culturally appropriate to debate or argue in public. The group determines what’s best for the community and everyone respects the decision. To me, this result is real similar to that in concept,” said Miller after the hearing.
Bastian said she would ultimately like to see a sign explaining the cultural significance of Swaram and the history of the mining settlement there.
The committee’s recommendation now goes to the state Board of Natural Resources. If the board approves the name change, it will be official in Washington. The board can approve a change or send it back to the committee with concerns, but can’t deny it, said Maki.
The final step is a review by the U.S. Committee on Geographic Names. That decision holds more practical importance because its decisions go into the official database used for maps, said Maki. It’s rare for the U.S. board to reject a state’s recommendation, he said.
The U.S. board meets once a month but has a busy schedule reviewing names for 50 states and places as distant as Antarctica and Jupiter, said Maki.
The U.S. board will receive the entire file. People can still submit comments to email@example.com.
Although the state committee gets a dozen name-change proposals a year and approves 60 to 70 percent, the board is reluctant to change names for anything other than a misspelling, said Maki. “Outside of derogatory or offensive terms, it’s really rare to change a name,” he said.
Along with proposals to christen unnamed features or replace offensive names, the commission receives some more esoteric requests. Efforts to rename Washington itself are fairly common, including one proposal to christen the state for someone’s pet cat, said Maki.