By Marcy Stamper
When new maps are created – folded paper versions and the online maps that also generate driving directions – a creek south of Methow will be labeled Swaram Creek, restoring the name used more than 100 years ago.
The change was approved unanimously on June 21 by the 10-member U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which considered a proposal from a Methow Valley resident to rechristen the creek with the name used by Methow natives.
“Swaram,” which was suggested by a linguist with the Confederated Tribes for the Colville Reservation, means “torch fishing,” according to documents submitted to the board. The 6.8-mile-long creek is about 3 miles south of the town of Methow.
“The name of that particular place simply describes the salmon runs during which young adult men were required to go through a rite of passage by taking charge of the torches,” wrote Methow elder and tribal linguist Elaine Timentwa Emerson in a letter to the board.
The official Methow name for the stream is “swaR’a-tátkw” in the international phonetic alphabet, according to the board’s summary of the proposal.
Not only does Swaram Creek restore the historic name, but it also eliminates the name “Squaw Creek,” which was used throughout the 20th century and widely considered offensive and derogatory, according to the proposal.
The name Squaw Creek seems to have originated with a mining camp along the stream in the late 1800s and first appeared on U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps in 1899, according to the U.S. board.
The Washington Committee on Geographic Names approved the change from Squaw to Swaram in December, a necessary step before submission to the U.S. board. The national board consulted the U.S. Forest Service, since the road is on their land, and made sure there was outreach to local governments, area residents and tribes, according to Lou Yost, executive secretary for the U.S. board.
Decisions by the U.S. board hold more practical importance than the state’s because their nomenclature is entered into the official database used for maps, said Caleb Maki, executive secretary for Washington’s committee.
The name change has been in the works for more than a year. Area resident Joanna Bastian submitted the initial proposal last March on behalf of the Colville tribes, their linguist, and several local residents.
Bastian, who also writes a column about the Lower Valley for the Methow Valley News, mentioned the Swaram Creek initiative in her column, which generated many comments to the committee.
The majority of commenters favored the name change, but the proposal drew objections from some local residents, particularly those on the road that follows the creek, then called Squaw Creek Road. Renaming the creek would have obliterated the identity of their home and cost them money to change their address, they said. In the end, hundreds of people signed petitions both for and against the name change.
While the Colville Tribes didn’t initiate the name change, they wholeheartedly supported it, with letters from both the chairman and the tribal historic preservation officer, said Guy Moura, program manager for history and archaeology. In her letter accompanying the proposal, linguist Timentwa Emerson called the change “long overdue.”
After the Washington board renamed Swaram Creek, Squaw Creek Road property owners petitioned Okanogan County, which has jurisdiction over road names, to change the name of the road to Hunter Mountain Road, for a nearby mountain. The Okanogan County commissioners approved that change in December.
The tribes are pleased that the name of the road was also changed, said Moura.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is an interagency organization of the U.S. government established to maintain uniform usage of geographic names. It was created in 1890, around the same time European settlers, whose name for the creek ultimately gained currency, began arriving in the Methow Valley.
The board was created to resolve inconsistencies that were a serious problem for surveyors, government officials and scientists during “the surge of exploration, settlement, and economic exploitation of the American West after the Civil War,” according to a fact sheet.
Both the state and federal boards name only geographic features like creeks and mountains, not roads or towns. The boards don’t create names on their own but approve or reject names submitted by others.