The 'Squaw' Word

 

'Squaw' renaming may have exception

Portland Press Herald

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

by Paul Carrier - Staff writer


Augusta
- County officials in northern Maine are gearing up to
comply with a new state law banning the use of the word "squaw"
in all place names, but municipal officials in Standish
and Stockton Springs do not plan to do the same.

Officials offered conflicting assessments Monday regarding a law
that the Legislature passed this year outlawing the word "squaw"
and the alternative spelling "squa" in Maine's ponds,
streams, islands, bays, mountains and other locations.

The two towns that believe they are free to ignore the law
say the sites within their borders squaw island on sebago lake
in standish and squaw head and squaw point in stockton springs
 are privately owned and therefore exempt.

 

Supporters of the law disagree, saying it requires that all such
place names be changed, regardless of who owns them.

About two dozen locations in seven counties, most of them in
Piscataquis and Aroostook counties, may be affected by the law, 
which was passed at the request of Maine Indians.

Although some Indians do not find the word "squaw" offensive,
many others say it is often used by non-Indians as a derogatory term
to belittle and insult Indian women in a way that suggests promiscuity.

The law requires that municipalities change such place names if they
exist within their borders and that county governments
change them wherever they exist in the unorganized territories.

The law takes effect Aug. 11. County and local governments will
 then have six months – or until Feb. 11 – to make the changes 
and notify the state and federal governments.

Officials in Piscataquis and Aroo- stook counties said Monday
 they have not yet taken steps to change about 18 place names 
in those two counties, but they plan to do so by the legal deadline.

"We're going to follow the law," said Eben DeWitt, 
chairman of the Piscataquis County commissioners.
 "We're not lawbreakers in Piscataquis County."

DeWitt said his commission probably will authorize 
one of its own members, who is from Greenville, 
to hold one or more hearings there on possible name changes.

Many of the place names that will have to be changed are 
in the Greenville area, including Big Squaw Mountain. 
The law does not apply to private businesses that use 
the word in their names, such as the
Big Squaw Mountain Resort in Greenville.

In that case, the name of the mountain will have to be changed 
but the owners of the resort are free to keep the name 
of their business, if they see fit.

Roland Martin, the county administrator in Aroostook County, 
said county commissioners there plan to create an advisory board
 in July to solicit public comment on new names for the likes
 of Squapan Township and Squa Pan Knob.

"Clearly, what we want is some local input," Martin said. 
"We fully intend to comply."

One group that has shown the way is the Passamaquoddy Tribe, 
which renamed Squaw Pond in Passamaquoddy territory to Sipun Pond.

State Rep. Donald Soctomah, the tribe's representative to the
Legislature and the sponsor of the "squaw" bill,
said the new name is an Indian word for black fly,
which aptly describes one of the pond's best-known features.

Similarly, the Penobscot Nation is taking steps to rename
White Squaw Island, which is on Penobscot land in Greenbush Township.

"There is a process that the tribe is going through on how to rename that,"
said John Banks, a tribal member of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, 
a state agency that strongly supported passage of the "squaw" bill.

The situation is far different in Standish and Stockton Springs, where 
ownership of affected properties has emerged as the central issue.

William Kirk, town manager in Standish, said municipal officials
 there believe they do not have to change the name of 
 

Squaw Island because it is privately owned.

"I think private individuals can keep it" if they want to, Kirk said.
The owners, Robert and Ruth Mougalian of Buxton,
could not be reached for comment.

In Stockton Springs, First Selectman Lew Armstrong said local
officials share Kirk's view as far as Squaw Head and Squaw Point
are concerned and will assume that owners of those properties
have control of the names, "until we hear to the contrary."

That interpretation of the law does not sit well with some of
 the legislators who helped pass it.
They say the wishes of the landowners are immaterial because
the law does not give them jurisdiction over place names.

Landowners can call their property whatever they want,
the law's supporters say, but state law now requires
official name changes in all such cases,
ultimately including new names on maps.

"That word is going to disappear" from all Maine place names,
Soctomah said.

"There's no exception for (private landowners). The law is quite clear,"
said Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Naples, co-chairman of the
legislative committee that considered the issue.
"It's not up to the owners.
This is separate from what they call it.
It has a separate geographic name" that must be changed in all cases.

That's fine with Sarah Ely, daughter of Joseph Ely of Wayland, Mass., 
who is listed by Stockton Springs as the owner of tiny Squaw Head island.

"Whatever makes people feel comfortable is fine with me," said Ely,
 

whose family also owns land on nearby Squaw Point in Stockton Springs.

"I'd say it's the town's responsibility" to change the names, she said.
"I don't really know how we would change it" and then make
a family-initiated change official, she said.

 

An update from Maine
 

"House says take 'Squaw' off the map"

(Only 17 Republicans oppose removing the word, 
seen by many as offensive, from Maine place names)

Portland Press Herald

March 16, 2000

by Paul Carrier - Staff writer

Augusta - The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday
that would ban the use of the word "squaw" in Maine places names,
such as Big Squaw Mountain and Little Squaw Township.
The House vote, which followed close to 90 minutes of debate, was 129-17.  
All but 17 Republicans joined House Democrats and 
the lone independent in support of the bill.  

The measure now goes to the Senate, which also is expected to endorse it. 
Gov. Angus King has said he will sign the bill into law if the Legislature passes it.
About 2 dozen American Indian women who listened to the debate from the House
gallery burst into applause when the vote was announced.

"I think a mountain was moved today," Vera Francis, 
a Passamaquoddy woman, said after the vote. 
"I think the state of Maine is daring to undo racism today." 
"This is a go-ahead for a new beginning," said Sherri Mitchell, 
a Penobscot woman who observed the debate. 
"There is no denying that it's positive."

 

The bill would require municipalities and counties to come up
 with new place names within 6 months of the law taking effect. 
 If the bill is passed and signed during the current 
legislative session, the law would go into effect in July, 
so new place names would have to be in place by January.

More than 2 dozen place names, many of them in the 
Greenville area, would be affected.
The bill would not prevent businesses, organization 
or individuals from using the word "squaw."

The House debate closely mirrored the testimony that
supporters and opponents offered during a public
hearing before the Judiciary Committee in January.
American Indian women who testified for the bill at
that hearing described "squaw" as an insulting term
that is routinely used by non-Indiansto degrade and
insult Indian women in a way that implies promiscuity.

Opponents countered that the bill is an exercise in political
correctness that would eliminate the use of an American
Indian word that originated as a neutral or even a
complimentary term for "woman" or "wife." 

 The word appears to have originated among southern
New England tribes and it may not have been derogatory in origin. 
But linguistic experts say the word has been usurped by non-Indians 
over the centuries and transformed into a demeaning term. 

 

Contemporary dictionaries of ten list it as an insulting or offensive word.
The word does not exist in any of Maine's tribal languages.
"We're not asking you to stop anyone else from using the word.
We're not trying to ban the word from the language," Rep Richard Thompson,
D-Naples, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told the House on Wednesday.
But he said, the state should not sanction the use of the word in place names
because "it was a word adopted by Europeans to brand Indian women."

Lawmakers "know in their heart" that the word has
become and remains an insult," Thompson said.


"This word is offensive and dehumanizing," said Rep. Donald Soctomah,


the Passamaquoddy Tribe's representative and the sponsor of the bill.
"It is not about political correctness.  It is about human decency."
"Many of you don't understand when living, feeling, breathing native people
tell you they are dehumanized" by the use of the word, said Rep. Donna Loring,
the Penobscot Nations's representative in the House.

"Native people in Maine are surrounded by prejudice, hatred and abuse.
It's a dark place" that needs to exposed to the light of education and compassion.
Supporters generally outnumbered opponents during the House debate.


Rep. Paul Waterhouse, R-Bridgton, the lone member of the Judiciary Committee to oppose the bill, told the House that Indians should fight to restore "the original, respectful meaning" of the word instead of trying to outlaw its use in place names."
The word "doesn't belong to the victors" who have misused it, Waterhouse said.
"It belongs to the indigenous people."

 

But even the few lawmakers who spoke against the bill were muted in their criticism.
Waterhouse said his decision to oppose the bill was "very tough" to make.
Rep. John Buck, R-Yarmouth, another opponent, conceded during the debate
that there are "compelling reasons why you can vote either way."

The mandatory name changes would hurt such businesses as the Squaw Mountain Resort,
said Rep. Earl Richardson, R-Greenville, because the very names of such 
businesses are inextricably linked to the current name of Squaw Mountain.

Greenville Town Manager David Cota, who testified against the bill
at the hearing but was not present for the House vote,
said later in a telephone interview that the proposed law is unnecessary
in the face of evidence that Squaw Mountain was named by Indians.

 

"We're going to lose a sense of who we are" once the name changes are made,
Cota said. "These names are very dear to our history in this area.
We're not the bad guys.  We're not trying to be irreverent to Native Americans."

Loring, the Penobscot Nation's representative, had a far different view.
"I think this is going to do a lot to enhance the self-esteem and
self-respect, not only of native women, but of native "people,"
Loring said after the vote.  "This is one of my best days" in the Legislature,
she said, but with additional votes still pending, "I hope to have better days."


Paul Carrier can be contacted

by phone at: 207-622-7511

or email at: pcarrier@pressherald.com

 

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