Many of us know Oregon was founded as a racist utopia.
Did you know we still have racist place names littered across the state?
Oregon has 12 places with “negro” in the title, and 55 with “squaw,” a racist term to describe Native American women. Many of these places used an even more racist term, the n-word, until the 1960s.
In 2020, “Negro Ben Mountain” in Jackson County was renamed “Ben Johnson Mountain” to honor the Black man who operated a blacksmith shop near Ruch, Oregon. You can see the name change proposals being considered by the Oregon Geographic Names Board on their website. For example, they are considering a proposal by the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians to rename “Big Squaw Mountain” in Douglas County to “Dumont Butte.”
In 2021, three geographic features in Jackson County once called Dead Indian Mountain, Creek, and Soda Springs were renamed for the Native Latgawa people, who lived in this area for more than a thousand years.
Oregon Black Pioneers, an organization in Salem, is identifying and commemorating sites with African American historical significance. The organization works through the Oregon Geographic Names Board, an affiliated partner of the Oregon Historical Society, to replace antiquated and racist terminology in state place names. Replacing racist road names throughout Oregon, though, will require many more years of investigation and lobbying.
In February Deb Haaland, our first Native American U.S. Secretary of the Interior, announced the department would be removing the racist and misogynist slur “squaw” from 660 national landscape features. Oregon State University recently unveiled a new study, “Words Are Monuments,” which assessed the origins of more than 2,000 place names throughout 16 national parks. When Haaland announced the name change plan, Oregon was already ahead of the other states, with 12 proposed name changes.
Did you know anyone in Oregon can formally propose a name change for a geographic feature? The Oregon Historical Society has more information on that process. Changing the racist names in our state is just one small step toward reconciling with our history of racism and bigotry.