Mar 6, 2012

Have you heard the one about squawberry shortcake?

Every time this claptrap about offensive place names hits the press I recall a jingle in one of the old Boy Scout handbooks. How to make a fire:

"First you get your tinder, dry as can be,
"Then a little squaw wood, dead but from a tree...".

As far as I know this did not lead to widespread disrespect for female Indians, or Native Americans, or if you must, indigenous people of the American continents.  If it had any implication at all beyond simple bush craft, it taught scouts an anthropological fact. In many tribes, men hunted and made war.  Women cooked and kept wigwam.

"Squaw wood" was the term for firewood light enough to be handled by women.  I know of no case in which a lad, upon hearing it, was carried off into perverted reveries about primitive females' private parts or had even heard that "squaw" is a vulgar synonym for the v-word. (Which it probably isn't.)

That came later when white (mostly) America became rich enough to afford to pay idlers to point out and rectify the moral failures of our fathers in naming the new places they ran across. It continues to this day.

And so it is that the board (of  Geographic Place Names) , which tends to listen to what locals want, has slowly set about scrubbing the word from the landscape. Late last year, for example, Squaw Peak in California’s Inyo National Forest became Wunupu Peak, a Paiute name for “tall pine” or “pine-nut tree area” ... and Squaw Creek in Montana became Two Moons Creek, in honor of a Cheyenne leader of the 1870s.

"Wanupu?" Say it out loud and think thoughts of wholesome purity.

"Two Moons?"  If I were a Cheyenne I'd be less than thrilled about a place named for a turncoat who -- after helping lead his band in a couple of victories against the white eyes -- became a turncoat and spent most of the rest of his life as a lackey for paleface General Bear Coat Miles.

I was pleased to see the term "niggerhead" (a rock awash) disappear from United States nautical charts, but beyond that sort of thing this preoccupation with titivating the language of our fathers strikes me as expensive, time-wasting, history-denying bullshit.

And if that ain't the Taku-Wakan's own sweet truth I'll kiss your arse in the shadow of the Grand Tetons and give you three sleeps to gather the tribes.

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