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Should Offensive Place Names Be Changed?

Snowboarders ride a lift with Lake Tahoe in the background at Squaw Valley in Olympic Valley, California, Dec. 5, 2015.

Snowboarders ride a lift with Lake Tahoe in the background at Squaw Valley in Olympic Valley, California, Dec. 5, 2015.

Hundreds of places across the U.S. use the word “squaw,” including Squaw Creek, Squaw Flat, Squaw Meadows and Squaw Springs, for example. In 1960, the Winter Olympics took place in a ski area called Squaw Valley, California.

But some people find the word offensive. It is an old word for an American Indian woman or wife. Many dictionaries note that the word is considered insulting. Few people use it in conversation anymore.

Now, some lawmakers and volunteers are trying to change place names that include the word “squaw,” and other demeaning words, with names that are currently more acceptable.

A history of racial and ethnic insults

Place names such as Squaw Valley are historic, but they are also signs of a time when racial and ethnic insults were a common part of American society.

Other places that include racial and ethnic labels are “Negro Ben Mountain,” “Jew Valley,” “Chinaman’s Hat,” and “Redman Creek.”

VOA generally does not broadcast these names or other, more-offensive names, or put them on our website, unless they are part of a news story. But many people continue to use these names. And they often still appear on maps and signs.

Lawmakers in six states have already approved bills to force or suggest changing controversial place names in their states. Committees must decide whether to keep a historical name even if some people may be insulted by it.

More than 30 offensive names

The state of Washington, in the northwest corner of the United States, is one of the places that is considering its place names carefully.

Pramila Jayapal is a Washington state senator. She convinced Washington’s Department of Natural Resources to create a list of insulting place names. She then published the department’s report.

The agency found 36 names. They include “Jim Crow Point” and “Jim Crow Creek.”

In American English, the name “Jim Crow” was originally an insulting term for a black man. The term came to be used to describe laws that enforced racial separation in the United States from the 1870s -- after the Civil War -- to the 1950s and 1960s, when federal civil rights laws were passed that banned racial segregation.

Some people believe “Jim Crow Point” and “Jim Crow Creek” were named for a black man who deserted from the Navy and settled in the area in the 19th century.

But some area residents have different beliefs. One source says the name comes from a kind of bird -- called crows -- that lived in trees near a local river.

Another person who lives nearby, Joe Budnick, says Jim Crow Point and Jim Crow Creek were named after an Indian chief.

Budnick is a retired fisherman and truck driver. He says local people did not like state officials telling them to make changes to local place names.

“The inference was that we were racists and that we were stupid and didn’t know we were offending people and all this other stuff -- when we’re not,” he complained.

Despite his objections to the political pressure, Budnick suggested some alternative names. He says Jim Crow Point could be named Brookfield Point because a town called Brookfield once existed in the area.

And, he says Jim Crow Creek could be named Harlows Creek, and Jim Crow Hill could be named Beare Hill, to honor a family that settled in the area long ago.

The state committee that reviews name suggestions liked Budnick’s ideas. Committee members approved them for final consideration.

Political correctness? Or generally offensive?

Another targeted name in Washington is Squaw Bay in the state’s San Juan Islands.

Some islanders support changing the name. But others say doing so would be giving in to “political correctness” and would “wipe away our history.”

Jon Shannon lives on one of the islands. He says he would never call someone a “squaw.” But, he says, “there is a difference between making it personal and the history that goes along with the place names that have been assigned historically. I guess I just don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Mike Iyall is a representative of the Cowlitz Native American tribe. He is also a member of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names. He wants the word “squaw” to be removed from maps. Iyall says it is a generally offensive name for native people.

“It doesn’t have to be that everyone is offended,” Iyall notes. “If it is known to be offensive to some, that should be reason enough to change it.”

A slow process

Changing a place name is usually a slow process. In most states, members of geographic names committees are volunteers. The committees may meet only twice a year.

Kyle Blum works at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. His agency is trying to make the name changing process faster.

Usually, Blum says, the agency just waits for suggestions. But now, his group is organizing public meetings to tell people they can change place names in their areas.

The first meeting will be in King County, where Coon Creek is located. It is not known if the name was given as a racial insult against a black settler, or because raccoons lived nearby.

Mike Iyall of the state Committee on Geographic Names says either way, the name could be changed.

“In the case of ‘coon,’” he says, “if it is the animal, then it should be ‘raccoon.’ If it’s a family name, then perhaps the gentleman’s first name could be attached as well. Then, both become clear what we’re talking about.”

Iyall is clear that any new name ideas must come from the people who live in the area. His committee only reviews suggestions.

“I guess maybe somewhere down the road 200 years from now, somebody will go along and clean up our work, too,” Iyall says with a laugh.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Correspondent Tom Banse reported this story from Olympia, Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

place name – adj. the name of a city, town, lake, country, etc.

demean – v. to cause (someone or something) to seem less important or less worthy of respect

controversial – adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement or argument; likely to produce controversy

segregation – n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other

desert – v. to leave the military without permission and without intending to return

inference – n. a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence

stuff – n. informal used to speak in a general way about something that is talked about, written about, etc.

alternative – adj. offering or expressing a choice

politically correct – expression the idea that people are sometimes overly or unnecessarily careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people

wipe away – v. expression eliminate; remove

assign – v. to give a particular value, identity, etc., to something

located – adj. in a specified place in or at that place

raccoon – n. a small North American animal with grayish-brown fur that has black fur around its eyes and black rings around its tail

attach – v. to associate or connect one thing with another; to add

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