When the Legislature enacted and Gov. John Baldacci subsequently signed into law legislation that broadens the existing ban on use of the word “squaw” in the state’s official place names, the argument for or against the ban was not in play.
That train had left the station years ago, when an earlier Legislature decided that the word was offensive to many Native Americans and others who consider it a derogatory term for women.
The times they were a-changing back then, and Greenville’s Big Squaw Mountain soon became officially known as Big Moose Mountain in the state lexicon, although if you can find me any oldtimer in the Greenville area who actually calls it that there may be a small Snickers bar in it for you when next we meet.
According to a news story filed by BDN reporter Kevin Miller, LD 797, signed by the governor on Monday to take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, is mainly aimed at tightening up alleged loopholes in the original law in respect to derivations of “squaw” and “squa” and addressing a dispute between a Stockton Springs homeowners association and the town’s selectmen.
When selectmen moved to comply with state law by substituting the word “Defence” for locations that included the word “squaw” in the Squaw Point section of town, association members — in a move that doesn’t figure to win any prize for subtlety — voted to rename their group the “Squapoint Association.” They also asked that the town rename Defence Road, making it Squall Point Road. “Defence” was the name of a ship that was scuttled in the Penobscot River near Stockton Springs during the Revolutionary War.
Selectmen balked, prompting a petition from the association seeking to block the town from vetoing names of private roads as long as the names are consistent with state law. Voters will have their say in the matter on June 20.
Association member Dan Coulters, a candidate for the board of selectmen in the upcoming municipal election, said the Squall Point Road designation is a good fit because “it symbolizes the area we live in.”
Several members of a legislative committee considering LD 797 reportedly had raised concerns that the bill might inadvertently prohibit the use of inoffensive words in place names that begin with “squa,” such as the word “square.” As in Square Lake. The amended bill prohibits the use of “squa” as a separate word “or as a sepa-rate syllable in a word.”
That seemingly would mean that place names such as “Squapan” and derivatives in The County will soon become toast, although the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation, said that is not the intent of the legislation. The word that disturbs is the single-syllable “squaw,” Mitchell said.
The lawmakers’ concern that unintended consequences might result if all words beginning with “squa” were to be expunged from Mainers’ repertoire seems valid. Such a development could crimp many a wordsmith’s style.
Oh, sure, it might eliminate squalor and squalid conditions, and I suppose no one could squawk about that opportunity being squandered. But we could no longer get squarely in the middle of a squabble about squatter’s rights? Or wax eloquent about a meal of squab and squash? Please. The speech police would surely be over-whelmed in their collaring of scofflaws.
Facetious word play aside, the tightening of the law is probably an idea whose time has come. A check of dictionaries past and present suggests that “squaw” has become offensive over time. Language evolves, and words mean to people what people use them to mean.
Some scholars have suggested that the notion that “squaw” is an offensive word is “false etymology,” and they may be right. But Passamaquoddy tribal representative Donald Soctomah stated things pretty well a decade ago in support of the original legislation.
“It is not the linguist’s definition of the original native word that is of concern,” Soctomah wrote in a 1999 guest column. “It is the way that the term has been used to define native women in its current context. It is hard for the general population to imagine how hurtful a word can be unless it is directed at them, their culture or racial background.”