The state Committee on Geographic Names voted May 16 to recommend the state Natural Resources Board change the name of Squaw Bay on Shaw Island in San Juan County to Reefnet Bay, and Squaw Creek in Klickitat County to Walaluuks Creek.
The committee also agreed to consider a proposal to change the name of Squaw Creek in Okanagan County to Swaram Creek.
An earlier proposal was submitted to name Squaw Bay “Sq’emenen,” the historical Lummi name for Shaw Island. But residents of the island countered with a proposal to rename the bay “Reefnet,” in recognition of the bay’s history as a reefnet fishing site. The committee voted to recommend “Reefnet Bay,” citing support from island residents. Many of those residents said they opposed the name Sq’emenen because it was too difficult to pronounce (it’s pronounced ske-me-nen, with short e’s, according to Lummi chief Bill Tsilixw James).
Supporters said renaming the bay “Sq’emenen” would recognize the Lummi Nation’s ties to the island, which is within its historical territory, and would expand local knowledge of the island’s indigenous history.
Among those supporting the Sq’emenen Bay proposal: Swinomish Tribe Senator Sophie Bailey; Samish Nation general manager Leslie Eastwood; former Tulalip Tribes vice chairwoman Deborah Parker; state Rep. Jeff Morris, Tsimshian, one of four Native Americans in the state legislature; Kerry Lyste, cultural resources director of the Stillaguamish Tribe; and Maurice John, president of the Seneca Nation, which successfully petitioned the Buffalo, New York, Common Council to change the name of an island in its territory from “Squaw Island” to “Unity Island.”
Shirley Williams, a Lummi educator who started a camp on the San Juan Islands to introduce Lummi youth to their ancestral lands, supported changing the bay’s name to Sq’emenen.
“The name change from ‘Squaw’ to ‘Reefnet’ has no honor, as the reef nets and locations have become non-Native owned after 100 years of being forced out or outlawed, depending on which side of the border a First Inhabitant was on,” she wrote to ICMN.
“If the decision to choose ‘Reefnet’ instead of ‘Sq’emenen’ was because the First People’s language is too difficult to speak, perhaps some should attempt to see the situation from an indigenous lens. The First People were forced like cattle to move from their homelands to reservations, children were removed from their parents, a sustainable way of life was nearly destroyed and our grandparents were forced to speak English. That transition was probably hard for them as well.
“There is a perpetual cycle of dominance, oppression or mere level of ignorance or lack of humanity as individuals who make up a whole continue to support the continuation of cultural/spiritual genocide. For those who try to help, we must move swiftly as it has only taken since 1855 to have this level of ambiguous loss and ecological destruction to both man and animal in our shared territories.”
The Walaluuks Creek renaming was proposed by Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy. Walaluuks was the name of a Yakama woman who lived in the creek valley.
The proposal to change the name of Squaw Creek to Swaram Creek had overwhelming community support, including that of the leadership of the Colville Tribes. “Swaram” is a Methow word that describes the type of fishing at the creek, according to the proponent.
Matt Remle, Hunkpapa Lakota, is a Seattle-area educator who led successful efforts to abolish Columbus Day in Seattle city government and in schools and replace it with a Native American Day observance. He said replacing “squaw” with local indigenous place names is “important work.”
“The rejecting of racist place names and reclaiming of indigenous place names is important and essential work that both challenges the settler colonial narrative and affirms the traditional names our ancestors gave to certain geographic areas,” he told ICMN.
“Often, the names our ancestors named certain areas carried with it a wealth of traditional knowledge and had stories associated with it, such as Mato tipila (Bear lodge in Lakota, called Devil’s Tower by non-Natives) a name that carries with it oral history and knowledge about its formation. The reclaiming of place names is also tied to the reclaiming of our languages and oral histories. Doing so helps not only our youth and communities, but all peoples, in better learning about and understanding the significance of places.”
Other governments in the United States have changed place names that contain the word “squaw,” among them the states of Idaho, Maine and Montana; and the city of Buffalo, New York.
In 2003, Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Arizona, was renamed Piestewa Peak to honor Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat for the U.S. In 2011, the California Office of Historic Preservation changed the name of a state historical landmark, “Squaw Rock,” in the Russian River canyon, to “Frog Woman Rock,” to honor and respect the cultural heritage of the Pomo peoples of the region.
The word “squaw” is, according to Abenaki anthropologist Dr. Marge Bruchac, a misappropriated Algonkian word that became widely misused as a racialized epithet. She wrote in a 1999 essay that, where the word has been used as a place name, it should be replaced by names in the local Indigenous languages.
“Every river, mountain, valley, and plain, every plant and every animal, every living being on this continent was known to the original inhabitants,” she wrote. “If the real goal is [to] preserve that history, then the solution is easy – encourage the local Native Nations to rename these places in their original languages.”