Pressure mounts to remove 'sqaw' from place names

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Moves to eliminate the term "squaw" from names of geographical sites are accelerating because of protests that the term is offensive.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has renamed 16 valleys, creeks and other sites so far this year. Pending proposals mean 2008 should see more changes than any year in a decade, the board says.

American Indians consider "squaw" a derogatory term for women, says Jacqueline Johnson of the National Congress of American Indians. Native Americans have pushed states and the federal government to eliminate it.

Their most high-profile success came April 10, when the federal board renamed Squaw Peak, a hiking spot outside Phoenix, Piestewa Peak to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi-Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

Nine states — Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Oregon, Maine, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee — have passed laws changing names of public places that use certain terms defined as offensive.


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At least 940 places from churches to bridges and natural formations use the word, the names board says. At Squaw Valley in California, a push to rename the ski resort failed five years ago.

The names board has final say over name changes for geographic features such as mountains and lakes. Local governments decide on schools, towns and roads.

Valerie Fast Horse, a council member with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, Montana and Washington, says the usual translation of "squaw" is a profane term for female genitalia. It's so offensive in her tribe, she says, that members refer to it as "the 'S' word."

"They should translate the names into English and see how fast they get changed," she says.

The word originally meant "woman" but took on a derogatory meaning as white settlers used it to describe a promiscuous or unworthy woman, says University of Montana anthropology professor Neyooxet Greymorning.

Two Montana county commissions have approved renaming a butte and coulee but object to the Indian names a local tribe proposes.

"It irritated me," says Cody McDonald, a Judith Basin County commissioner. "When these things were named a hundred years ago, they didn't mean to offend anybody. … And it's a waste of time. Everybody's still going to call it 'Squaw Coulee.' "

Copyright 2008 USA Today, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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