'Squaw' erased from all Maine public place names

September 8, 2011 - 3:35 PM

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The word "squaw" has finally disappeared from the names of all public places in Maine 11 years after state law aimed to wipe the word deemed offensive by Native Americans off maps. But the owner of a private ski resort with the word in its name refuses to go along, saying it's a tribute to American Indians.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names this summer approved name changes for a half-dozen locations in northern Maine's Aroostook County that still contained a variation of the word "squaw," which many Indians say is offensive and translates to prostitute or whore.

"It's unfortunate it took 11 years," said Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot Indian Nation's representative in the Legislature. "I thought as a civilization we were a lot further along than I guess we were at this time."

The law doesn't affect Big Squaw Mountain Resort, perhaps the best known place with the word in its title. And James Confalone has no intention of changing the name of his small ski resort outside Greenville.

Confalone insists the Legislature — and the Indians — got it all wrong.

He maintained that the word squaw means Indian woman and only slowly became offensive after the early 1970s. His ski area serves as a "monument" to Maine's Indian tribes, Confalone told The Associated Press

"The intent here is not to disparage Indians. The intent is to carry on the name," said Confalone, whose primary residence is in Florida.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is an interagency panel that approves all names on maps put out by federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. The board every year approves 300 to 350 name changes or new names.

The board has dealt with a number of sensitive words through the years, said Lou Yost, the board's executive secretary.

In 1963, it changed all geographic names containing the derogatory form of Negro, and in 1974 changed all names containing the disparaging form of Japanese.

As for "squaw," Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Oregon and Nebraska have passed legislation to change geographic names containing the word, he said.

On two occasions in the 1990s, the board was asked to remove the word from all geographic names. But after two years of analysis, the board decided not to change the name universally because not all Native Americans considered it to be derogatory, there was no single-word replacement on which everybody could agree, and some Indian tribes indicated they would prefer to change the names themselves to names in their language, Yost said.

In Maine, dozens of towns, mountains, lakes and other public places had their names changed after Gov. Angus King signed a bill into law in 2000 requiring them to do so.

But nobody expected it to take more than decade to complete the task, said John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. Some places resisted changing names that had been around for generations, and Dieffenbacher-Krall filed complaints against local and county commissions that were dragging their feet changing the names of some places.

Even so, having all the names changed is a good thing, he said.

"I think it's another step in the non-Indian population further recognizing indigenous people of this land," he said. "It's a positive step in improving tribal-state relations. I think all people want to be treated with respect."

Confalone said eliminating the word is "revisionist history." He said his dictionaries that were published before the 1970s don't refer it as offensive.

Merriam-Webster Inc., publisher of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, defines the word as an American Indian woman, or a woman or wife, but also says it is both disparaging and offensive.

Although the word is now considered offensive, it wasn't always that way, spokeswoman Meghan Lieberwirth said in an email. Scholars who have studied the issue agree that "squaw" first entered English in the 1600s, and that the original meaning of the word that gave rise to "squaw" was not considered offensive, she said.