Stateline Story

States Slowly Erasing Word 'Squaw' From Maps

  • April 26, 2000
  • By John Nagy

Detailed maps of the United States like those produced by the U.S. Geological Survey show more than 1,000 different geographical features from towns to mountains to creeks and reservoirs that have "Squaw" in their names. But by January 2001 there will be about 25 fewer with the word for woman that Native Americans find offensive, thanks to legislation enacted in Maine earlier this month.

The Maine law allows 90 days for the formation of a statewide review panel that will then have six months to propose and confirm substitutes for the old labels.

Gov. Angus S. King Jr.'s support for the bill appears to have stimulated efforts across the country to make the s' word disappear, at least from the text of maps. Maine is the third state, after Minnesota in 1995 and Montana last year, to outlaw the word for use in place names because it is considered repugnant by many American Indians.

One week after King signed the bill, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow vowed to muster support for a similar measure when his state legislature convenes again next January. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, Janklow's southern neighbor and fellow Republican, says he plans to watch what happens in South Dakota before taking action in his state.In sheer numbers, South Dakota and Nebraska are minor offenders. The USGS counts 25 "Squaw" place names in South Dakota and only 14 in Nebraska. And Johanns may have more than one model law to examine when Cornhusker lawmakers reconvene next year. In Oregon, which has more place names containing "Squaw" than any other state, lawmakers are currently drafting an eradication bill.

Supporters of the Oregon proposal will look to all three of the pioneering states for models of how to draft an adequate bill, says Karen Quigley of the state's Legislative Commission on Indian Services.

"One of the things we're talking about is how to get a piece of legislation that is concrete enough to capture offensive names without being vague." Time and cost are also practical considerations. With so many names to change "what do you replace them with?" Quigley says.

While "squaw" will be the prime target of the measure, she says that other labels like "Dead Indian Road" would be targets as well. Coos Indians are already prepared to nominate "Raven Island" as a replacement for the current Squaw Island.

In all, thirty-six states have "Squaw" features: Squaw Pants Crossing, near Fairbanks, Alaska; Squaw Creek Municipal Golf Course, in Linn County, Iowa; and Squaw Teats summit, near Hot Springs, Wyoming, are typical examples. Most of the names are in New England, the Midwest and Western states.

Despite their recent laws, Minnesota retains six such place names while Montana still has 74. Minnesota limited the law to apply only to geographic features, not to towns like Squaw Lake, and the process for change was slow. Montana's law, which took effect in October, sets no deadline for the project.

Standard English dictionaries define "squaw" simply as a woman or wife, typically young and of American Indian descent. Opponents of state-level efforts to scrub the name off the landscape say that the word's origins among the Massachusetts tribe in the 17th century carried no offensive connotation and that it was used to refer to both white and Indian women.

Supporters of the new Maine law and similar campaigns in Arizona, Idaho and Ohio dispute that history and say that the word comes from the French adaptation of an Iroqouian term for female genitalia. But to most American Indians, the word's origins are the lesser point.

"Squaw, like "Redskin," is derogatory ... It's offensive to Indian people, particularly Indian women," says Jack Jackson Jr., Government Affairs Director for the National Congress of American Indians.

A Navajo, Jackson says that his father has sponsored "squaw"-removal bills as an Arizona state lawmaker for years.