New name for Squaw Bay on state agenda

Aerial photo of Squaw Bay with the proposed name change of Sq'emenen Bay. (Photo illustration by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.)
Aerial photo of Squaw Bay with the proposed name change of Sq’emenen Bay. (Photo illustration by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.)

Next month, a state committee will consider changing the name of Squaw Bay on Shaw Island to Sq’emenen Bay — which would make it the latest Washington state place name to change because of a word considered racially offensive.

While there is disagreement whether the word “squaw” originated as an offensive word for Native American women, it’s offensive today after centuries of negative connotations, says Richard Walker, in his petition to the state to have the place name changed. Walker filed the petition in August. Walker has also written about the topic for Indian Country Today.

The proposed name, Sq’emenen, comes from the Lummi name for Shaw Island, according to the proposal filed with the Committee on Geographic Names, which will consider the name change on May 19.

Those opposed to the name change to Sq’emenen, according to the committee documents, include those who say they don’t believe the word “squaw” is offensive and others who say the proposed name is difficult to pronounce and spell. A separate alternative proposal of Reef Net Bay was submitted earlier this month, as a name “that more closely reflects both the native and non-native history of that particular bay.”

If the Committee on Geographic Names’ approves the change to Sq’emenen next month, the recommendation gets sent to the Board on Geographic Names for the final decision.

Shaw Island’s Squaw Bay was also on the a list that state Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) compiled of offensive geographical names in Washington state, which also includes Coon Creek in King County. Jayapal has asked the state to review and rename the locations on the list. There are nearly 20 places identified with the name “Squaw,” which takes up more than half her list.

The push for changing place names with ones that reflect the historical local culture has netted a few recent wins.

Last year, the federal National Park Service changed the name of Coon Lake to Howard Lake, reversing an earlier decision to keep the name despite its racist connotations, and renaming the lake after an African American pioneer who settled nearby.

Groups renewed the call to rename Howard Lake following the National Park Service’s decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley to its native name, Denali. Natives in Alaska as well as the Alaska state government had been pushing for the name Denali for decades.