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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fightin’ words

The Wall Street Journal recently published a somewhat amusing story about a battle in rural Maine over the name of a dead-end road. I say somewhat amusing because serious issues underlie the local brouhaha.

The dirt road is, or was, named Squaw Point Road. In 2000, however, Maine banned the use of squaw in toponyms. Native Americans argued that the term is offensive.

Forced to rename the road, the locals settled first on “Squawpoint” and then on “Squa Point.  In response, the Maine legislature prohibited “the designation ‘squa’ or any derivation of ‘squa’ as a separate word or as a separate syllable in a word.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary says squaw derives from a word meaning “younger woman” in the language of the Massachusett tribe. It defines the word as “a North American Indian woman or wife: this term is now considered offensive.”

There is some debate about the original meaning and connotation of squaw, but whatever its past, the term does offend many Native Americans today.

In the Adirondacks, the word appears in at least four toponyms. Squaw Mountain (3,239 feet) lies west of Indian Lake. Squaw Brook flows through the valley at the base of the mountain. Not too far away, Little Squaw Brook flows into the Cedar River. And then there is Squaw Lake in the Moose River Plains.

Is it time to change these names? Comments welcome.

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

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