By Phil Brown
In his travelog “The Adirondacks,” T. Morris Longstreth says of a fishing trip west of Indian Lake: “By noon we had reached the Squaw, a cheerful brook on the farther side of Snowy [Mountain], and within a flick of a fly some trout were sizzling in the pan.”
Longstreth is not taken aback by the toponym “Squaw Brook.” To the contrary, he includes it in a list of Adirondack place names that he finds charming.
That was 1916. Last fall, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Pueblo tribal member, decreed that “squaw” is derogatory. She created a task force to find alternatives to the offending names on U.S. maps.
Haaland’s order applies only to federal lands. Nevertheless, the time has come to re-examine place names in the Adirondacks (and the rest of New York). Maine and Montana, for example, outlawed the use of “squaw” in geographic names a few decades ago.
There are a dozen “squaw” place names in New York, including five in the Adirondacks. One is Squaw Mountain, the source of Squaw Brook. At 3,219 feet, it is one of the tallest peaks in the Indian Lake region, part of what Barbara McMartin dubbed the Little Great Range.
Squaw Brook memorializes the wife of Sabael Benedict, a Penobscot Indian and the first person to settle along Indian Lake. Presumably, the mountain gets its name from the brook. Ironically, his wife, Marie-Angelique, was of Dutch heritage. About 20 miles west of Squaw Mountain lies Squaw Lake in the Moose River Plains. Less well known are Little Squaw Brook, which also originates in the Little Great Range, and a second Squaw Mountain (much smaller), in North Hudson.
As far as I know, nobody has been lobbying for name changes. The lack of controversy probably owes, at least in part, to the relative obscurity of these peaks and waterways. Imagine if the state’s tallest mountain were called not Mount Marcy but Squaw Peak. You think the issue would have arisen by now? If a name is offensive, though, it should be changed regardless of its renown or lack thereof.
A more important consideration is whether “squaw” is derogatory. There is disagreement, even among Native Americans. Dictionaries say the term derives from the Algonquin word for “woman” or “wife.” Originally, it was inoffensive. The earliest citation in “A Dictionary of Americanisms’’ dates to 1622: “The Squa Sachim or Massachusets Queene was an enemy to him.”
So why is “squaw” seen as a slur today? Some have pointed to its similarity to a vulgar Mohawk word for vagina. More likely, the cause lies in its use in demeaning contexts in the media, including movies, TV shows, songs and books.
Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki, once argued that rather than abandon the term, Native Americans should reappropriate it. “I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over,” she wrote in 1999 as Maine was considering purging “squaw” from its maps.
Bruchac lost that battle. The war may be over too. Rightly or wrongly, it’s inarguable that many people, including the secretary of the Interior—the first Native American to occupy the post—now regard “squaw” as offensive. If people think a word is offensive, it is. That’s how language works.
Still, we ought not change the names willy-nilly. The governor or legislature should impanel a task force to gather input from the public, especially Native Americans, on whether “squaw” toponyms should be abolished and, if so, to solicit suggestions for substitutes. It would be an opportunity to rename geographic landmarks to honor Native American history.
The task force also should review other names that may cause offense. Take Negro Brook north of Saranac Lake. It once had a different name, a revolting racial slur. In the 1960s, the U.S. Geographic Survey changed it to “Negro.” This certainly is an improvement, but many would argue that it doesn’t go far enough. The name, however, reflects a bit of history: the early settlement of African Americans in the area. By expunging the name, do we risk expunging history? That’s something else for the task force to ponder.
In “The Adirondacks,” Longstreth casually mentions a mountain near Raquette Lake whose name included the same racial slur. That Longstreth is unfazed by what modern readers find shocking speaks to how times have changed. A century hence, our descendants may wonder how we tolerated “Squaw Mountain” and “Negro Brook.” Indeed, some people are wondering now.