Nearly a decade after waging a successful campaign to remove “squaw” from Maine place names, members of the state’s American Indian tribes want the law tweaked to address what they say are derogatory variations on the word.
But lawmakers considering the proposal will face linguistic challenges as they attempt to address the potentially offensive words without forcing changes to many harmless names.
Rep. Wayne Mitchell, who represents the Penobscot Nation, has introduced a bill that would prohibit use of “squaw” or “squa” as part of another word. Legislation enacted in 2000 already bans the words by themselves on grounds that “squaw” is a derogatory term for Indian women.
Mitchell’s bill, LD 797, would expand the law to prohibit towns or groups from simply dropping the “w” in “squaw” and combining the remaining “squa” fragment with another word, forming such phrases as “squapoint.”
Paul Bisulca, chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, said such derivations meant to skirt the 2000 law are just as offensive, if not more so, to many tribal members and women.
“Not only did you think that you got rid of the word, but now it’s coming back and in a different way,” Bisulca said Tuesday after a public hearing on LD 797 in Augusta. “It’s even more humiliating.”
Mitchell’s proposal appears inspired, at least in part, by a long-running maelstrom between a homeowners association and town officials in the Waldo County community of Stockton Springs.
More than a year and a half ago, the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen thought it had settled the dispute when it voted to substitute the word “defence” for all names on Squaw Point, which juts into Penobscot Bay.
The Defence was a privateer ship in the Revolutionary War that was scuttled near Stockton Springs in 1779 as part of the worst U.S. naval defeat until Pearl Harbor. Wreckage of the Defence is still buried in the river bottom there.
But residents of the homeowners association refused to give up.
In addition to renaming their group the “Squapoint Association,” the residents have requested that town officials rename Defence Road as Squall Point Road. The board rejected the request, prompting the homeowners association to put forward a petition that would block town officials from preventing the use of names on private roads as long as the name is consistent with state law.
Dan Coulters, a member of the Squapoint Association, said the word “squall” is certainly fitting for the area because of the strong winds and nasty weather that sweeps up Penobscot Bay.
“We thought it was a reasonable compromise,” Coulters said Wednesday.
As written, Mitchell’s bill would appear to prohibit use of the word “squall” in that context as well as a host of places or geologic features — many in Aroostook County — that bear the name “Squapan.” The bill would prohibit “any derivation of ‘squaw’ or ‘squa’ as a separate word or as part of a word, or phrase.”
Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee also expressed concerns about how LD 797 could affect the use of several common place names, such as “square.” Committee members said they would have to figure out a way to address the concerns without inadvertently causing havoc in towns throughout Maine.
There also appears to be disagreement about the meaning or origin of “squapan,” which when pronounced in the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet language could sound like “bears den,” according to Bisulca. But he believes it can be offensive, especially when pronounced in English.
Mitchell’s bill was endorsed by a number of civic organizations, including the Maine Human Rights Commission, Interfaith Maine and the Maine Women’s Lobby.