Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

See a racist place name on a WA map? Could take years to change it

"Squaw Creek" is southwest of the town of Methow in Eastern Washington. Screenshot from Google Maps.
"Squaw Creek" is southwest of the town of Methow in Eastern Washington. Screenshot from Google Maps.

The list of racist place names in Washington is long, but the state is slowly getting rid of them.

The latest is a “Squaw Creek” southwest of the town of Methow in Eastern Washington.

On Tuesday, the state Committee on Geographic Names voted to change the name to Swaram Creek. According to the proposal, “Swaram” is a native American word meaning “torch light fishing.”

But the committee’s action isn’t the final say. The recommendation goes to the state Board of Geographic Names, and it might be months before a final vote, said Bob Redling, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources.

And even then, there will remain a long roster of place names with offensive meanings or connotations.

After a 2015 struggle to rename a lake in North Cascades National Park brought attention to the issue, the state did an inventory.

“When we came up with the list, there were dozens,” Redling said. “There’s still a lot left.”

Getting rid of those names takes a long time. Redling said it’s up to local citizens to come up with proposals for the state to consider. Historical research can be required. Competing names have to be vetted. County governments, historical societies, tribes and others have to be consulted.

And that’s before action by the state committee and board.

The time that a change like this takes is apparent in the case of a bay on Shaw Island. Two years ago, the state Committee on Geographic Names first reviewed a request to change Squaw Bay's name to Sq’emenen Bay – after the Lummi name for Shaw Island.

In the months that followed, a competing proposal arose to call it Reef Net Bay.

The state board finally approved that name just four weeks ago.

Even then, while the state can use a new name, Redling said, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names gets a final say.

And of course it takes time for a new name to get onto maps and official documents.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Reef Net Bay was still “Squaw Bay” on Google Maps. 

Want to change a place name in Washington state that you think is offensive? Go to the website for the Committee on Geographic Names.

Year started with KUOW: 2015