A scenic viewpoint on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon off Interstate 84 was named “Squaw Creek” until a few years ago. Today, it’s called Isqúulktpe Creek Overlook (which translates into English as “throat-slitting place”).
Oregon once had 163 places named “squaw.” That word, apparently an Algonquin for woman, became widely recognized as a racial slur. In 2001, a group of elderly women from the Warm Springs Tribe convinced lawmakers to mandate that all “squaw” places in Oregon be renamed. Nine years later, only 37 have changed.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation took a dramatic step on Wednesday with a list of proposed replacement names to erase “squaw” from 44 geographic features in the northeast corner of the state, most on Umatilla ancestral homelands.
This is just the start of a slow process that involves months of reviews, research, recommendations and worries that winds slowly through two boards.
Changing names is not quick or easy. The 25-member Oregon Geographic Names Board approves changes but with no budget, votes only twice a year. Its recommendations go to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which takes up to eight months to okay them or not, says Lou Yost, of the board, located in Virginia.
Teara Farrow Ferman leads Umatilla’s efforts to replace names, and more importantly, to document traditional place names. As the tribe’s cultural resources protection program manager, she has worked with linguists, cultural anthropologists, experts at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and elders to compile an atlas of almost 600 original place names to be published later this year.
The biggest clash between tribes and OGNB is spelling. Both want to accurately reflect native languages, but the board is reluctant to approve names extremely difficult for English-speakers to spell or pronounce.
The change to Isqúulktpe was a drawn-out battle between linguistic and phonetic spelling. The tribe at first proposed two spellings and the OGNB chose the phonetic one. The tribe changed its mind and withdrew the phonetic spelling, says Malissa Minthorn Winks, an OGNB member and director of research and collections for Umatilla’s Tamastslikt tribal museum.
Farrow Ferman worked on this list for more than a year, consulting elders and records to determine if a place had a traditional name and, if not, what to name it. She estimates that three quarters of the places did.
“If it didn’t have a known place name next to it or within it, we looked at the geography and the archaeology to help us in coming up with a name,” she says. “And we worked with our tribal language program on that.”
The chance to rename these places is important to the Umatilla tribe not just to remove offensive names from the map, tribes says, but also because of the significance names and language hold.
Minthorn Winks explains that the Umatilla don’t usually make up names out of thin air, but rather to reflect the depth of connection to the landscape.
“One of the things that represents that depth and that enormous longitudinal continuity are these place names,” says Bobbie Conner, the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute director. “They’re not that transient in time — these are place names that have evolved over thousands of years.”
Both OGNB and the Umatilla tribe agree that renaming is taking much longer than anyone expected.
Though they care about the project and the opportunity, Minthorn Winks says the tribe doesn’t always give renaming efforts top priority. And, like the geographic names board, they don’t want to rush the process and risk mistakes.
“Tribes are typically very slow, very thoughtful, very methodical,” Minthorn Winks says. “We don’t race out there and do something in the bat of an eye.
“But once we make a decision, we make a decision.”