Do The Right Thing

Posted April 21, 2009, at 5:11 p.m.

Before he won the White House, President Obama had the habit of calling women reporters “sweetie.” When criticized for that habit, he could have defended himself and argued that he meant no harm, using it only as a term of affection. Instead, he acknowledged it was offensive because it could be perceived as dismissive, demeaning and sexist. He apologized and pledged to stop using the word.

That has generally been — and should be — the standard for all racist, ethnic or sexist terms throughout the culture. Granted, some groups have elevated sensitivities about such matters to seemingly absurd levels. But the arbiters of such language are those who are the objects of, not those who use, the terms.

In 2001, Maine seemingly settled the matter of the word “squaw” or “squa” when state government passed a law directing towns, counties and other jurisdictions to remove the words from geographic features, locations and highway signs. The law was an expansion of the 1977 law that removed the offensive word “nigger” from the state’s landscape.

It was not until 2007 that the coastal town of Stockton Springs in Waldo County changed the name of Squaw Point Road to Defence Road, a reference to the American ship sunk near the town during the War for Independence. But some of the residents of the road, and members of the barely renamed Squapoint Association, apparently have not fully accepted the change. An article on the coming town meeting warrant seeks to change the road name to Squall Point Road, an obvious allusion to the earlier, offensive name.

Wayne Mitchell, who represents the Penobscot Nation in the Legislature, has proposed a bill that would prohibit any geographic place name deriving from “squaw” or “squa.” Such a law may not be practical, because it may require an interpretation of intent, but Rep. Mitchell’s motivation is understandable.

“There’s always somebody trying to find a loophole,” Rep. Mitchell told Maine Public Radio. “They’re trying to bypass the process that the tribes have followed, that the people of Maine have followed.” Native people have clearly said the term is offensive, he concluded.

Rather than have authorities try to divine the intent of new place names, Mainers should focus on the intent of the existing law. The idea was to remove an offensive term, so why would residents want to tread so closely to the same word? Surely Mainers understand, and in fact usually pride them-selves on, neighborly values. Our native neighbors say the word is offensive, and there is no hardship in complying with the new rule.

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