By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
The next time you head out to South Bass Island and your boat approaches Put-in-Bay Harbor, look a little to the right. If you look closely, you might be able to see the beginnings of a controversy.
That little body of water on the right is named Squaw Harbor, and sometime soon, it might be Exhibit A in a battle over Indian traditions and the way American culture interprets them.
“We haven’t done any organized protests yet,” said Bob Allen, a coordinator at the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio. “But I’m sure that’ll be next.”
Across the country, Native American groups have begun organizing around the issue. They say the word “squaw” is offensive and should be eliminated from the landscape.
Last week, Maine Gov. Angus King became the latest to sign a law that will change the name of all “squaw” place names in the state. Minnesota and Montana have enacted similar legislation, and the issue has come up in at least five other states.
According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Ohio has 10 place names that include the word “squaw.” Two are in northwest Ohio: Squaw Harbor at Put-in-Bay and small Squaw Island in Sandusky County. Michigan has 29 “squaw” place names, but none near Toledo.
Ohio is no stranger to conflicts over American Indian imagery. The Cleveland Indians and their mascot, the forever smiling Chief Wahoo, has been a constant target of criticism. And in 1997, Miami University changed its team nickname from the Redskins to the RedHawks after the Miami tribe council said it found the old name offensive.
The origin of the word is disputed. Some older dictionaries claim it is derived from a word in the Massachusett language that simply means “woman.” But recent research suggests that its true origin is the Iroquois word “otsikwaw,” which was a native word for the female genitals. Among Native Americans, it is considered derogatory, comparable with calling someone a prostitute or a harlot.
“It’s very offensive,” said Joyce Mahaney, president of the Toledo-based American Indian Intertribal Association. “People say it in conversation, because they’ve read it in history or maybe they’ve seen the word in doing genealogical research. We try to educate them that it’s offensive.”
Even many of the dictionaries that favor the “woman” derivation still note that the word is considered derogatory.
The names that dot America’s landscape have been the subject of debate before. There are place names that offend just about every ethnic and racial group, from Italians and Jews to Chinese and Hispanics.
Twice, the federal government has gotten involved to eliminate whole groups of names considered offensive. In 1963, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names created a rule that changed all instances of the “N word” across the landscape to “Negro.” More than 1,000 names had to be changed.
One of those was in Ohio: Negro Run in Monroe County. Four years ago, local officials asked the federal board to change the name again, this time to Salem Run, because changing times had made some consider Negro Run offensive as well.
There are seven former “N word” places in Michigan, including what is now known as Strong Island, located in the River Raisin near downtown Monroe, just west of I-75.
The other blanket change the federal board has made occurred in 1974, when it voted to change all instances of “Jap” to “Japanese.”
Roger Payne, the board’s executive secretary, said that Native American groups have twice asked the board to eliminate “squaw” from the 928 place names it recognizes with the word. But he said there was no agreement on what to replace the word with, so the board decided to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
Changing a name is a fairly straightforward process. Anyone can send a letter of complaint to the federal names board asking for a change. The board then asks for an opinion from the local government agencies involved, such as a city council or county commissioners.
“If it doesn’t have the approval of a local body, it has less of a chance of being successful,” Mr. Payne said. “Our biggest concern is that we have names that people actually use.”
A similar request goes to the state body in charge of naming, which is the Department of Natural Resources in both Ohio and Michigan. Finally, the federal board votes on whether to make a change.
But despite the debates over “squaw” and other words, a request to change an offensive name is fairly rare, Mr. Payne said. Only five have been made in the last five years, not counting the mass changes in Minnesota, Montana, and now Maine.
The issue doesn’t seem to have come up much in Ohio. “It’s never been an issue here,” said Michael O’Brien, a commissioner in Trumbull County near Youngstown. Trumbull has the most “squaw” names of any Ohio county, including a Squaw Creek, a Squaw Valley Park Lake, and, as Mr. O’Brien puts it, “just about everything else: Squaw Trail, Run, Lane, Street.”
But Mr. O’Brien said that he would have “no opposition” if someone wanted to change the names in his county.
Ottawa County Commissioner John Papcun said that he has watched the debate over Indian mascots with interest. “I’m a big [Cleveland] Indians fan,” he said, “and I played ball for Port Clinton, and our nickname’s the Redskins.”
But he said that he would not have a problem with changing the name of Squaw Harbor on South Bass Island. “I think it would be very appropriate to be changed, because I think that is offensive to a gender,” he said. “I think it should be changed.”
But Dale Burris, a trustee in Put-in-Bay Township, isn’t so sure. “I can’t see that,” he said. “I’m from the old school. No one’s ever brought it up.”
He said he didn’t know that some Native Americans find the word offensive because of its derivation. “I tell you what: I would bet that not one person in Put-in-Bay Township knows that,” he said.
Ms. Mahaney said that lack of knowledge is key to resolving the issue.
“People just don’t know,” she said. “They think it’s appropriate to use the word, which is why education is important.