Request made to change lake’s ‘offensive’ name

One person’s complaint to the federal government that the name of an Oxford Township lake is insensitive to a specific race could potentially lead to a change on maps.

According to documents from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), a person named Christina West has proposed changing the name of Squaw Lake to Point Lake. The proposal was submitted on July 27.

“Squaw is an offensive and derogatory term for a Native American woman,” West wrote. “The name should be changed to something not offensive.”

West proposed Point Lake because the body of water “is shaped like an arrow pointing, with Clear Lake as the bottom of the arrow.”

In her submittal to the BGN, West did not state where she lives, but she did provide a telephone number and an email address. Attempts by this reporter to reach West were unsuccessful as it appears the phone number is invalid and there was no response to two emails requesting an interview.

Approximately 30 acres in size, Squaw Lake is one of the Stringy Lakes, a chain of interconnected lakes that includes Squaw, Clear, Long, Cedar and Tan lakes.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, squaw is a word for “an American Indian woman” and is “now often (considered) offensive.” The Collins English Dictionary also labels it as “offensive.” The first known use of the word was in 1622.

The BGN notified the Oakland County Board of Commissioners of the proposed name change in an Oct. 24 email.

In the email, it was explained that the BGN is “responsible by law for standardizing geographic names for use by the federal government.

“One of the functions of the BGN is to accept and process proposals to name unnamed geographic features or to change existing names,” the email stated. “A proposal can be submitted by any interested individual or organization, or local, state, federal or tribal agency. Provided the proposal meets the criteria of the BGN’s principles and policies, the BGN staff will accept it for consideration.”

BGN policy states “any individual or agency” can submit a name-change proposal if they consider the existing name “offensive,” but it must include “reasons why” and “offer an alternative name.”

Part of the BGN’s consideration of a name change is seeking input from local governments and elected officials, which in this case, includes the county and the Oxford Township Board. According to the email, the BGN “places importance on local opinion.”

“Once we receive your response, we will ask the Michigan State Names Authority for its recommendation,” the email stated.

Oakland County Commissioner Mike Spisz (R-Oxford) believes “it should be up to the community,” not one person, to determine “if they want to make a name change.” He favors the township board discussing it and soliciting opinions from residents before any decisions are made. If there is a consensus to change the lake’s name, Spisz believes the public should have “input” regarding a new one.

Oxford Township Trustee Jack Curtis feels the same way.

“Why should one person have the opportunity to name the lake?” he said.

Curtis will request the issue be placed on the Nov. 20 township board meeting agenda. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. and take place inside the township hall at 300 Dunlap Rd.

To him, if the community has no problem with the name, it should remain as is. But, if it turns out there is a desire among residents to change the lake’s name, then the new name shouldn’t be something generic or meaningless, in his opinion. He believes in that event, the lake should be named after an individual, family or business that helped build and/or better the community.

“Hopefully, (it would) inspire others to do the same,” Curtis said.

If a local government supports a name change, but recommends something different than what’s been proposed, the BGN email states officials “are welcome to initiate a counterproposal or solicit suggestions from other interested parties.”

It appears the name Squaw Lake goes back a ways.

According to the federal government, the lake’s name has appeared on U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps “since 1943.”

A plat for the Lakeland subdivision, recorded on Oct. 2, 1920, and a copy of an 1872 map that hangs in the township meeting room both show the lake’s name as Squaw.

According to BGN policy, “existing names,” such as those “in longstanding public usage, should not be changed unless the proponent presents a compelling reason to do so.”

The policy goes on to state that “even when the historical basis for an existing name is unknown, the BGN will still treat it with deference” and it “prefers to recognize present-day local use or acceptance.”

“The BGN’s guiding principle for the names of places, features, and areas in the United States and its territories is to approve for official federal use the names found in present-day local usage,” the policy states.

However, “an exception to this principle may occur” when it comes to names that are “derogatory” or “shown to be offensive to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.”

“Because geographic names are part of the historical record of the United States, the BGN prefers to proceed cautiously with regard to the use of names in everyday language, as attitudes and perceptions of words considered to be offensive can vary among individuals and communities and can change connotation over time,” the policy states. “Accordingly, the BGN will act on a case-by-case basis.”

Local reactions

Some longtime residents of Squaw Lake are not in favor of a name change.

“I think it’s absurd,” said Glenn McTaggart, who has lived on the lake for 40 years. “I certainly would be disappointed if the name ever changed.”

Yvonne Dudley said she’s “sick and tired” of things being changed because of “political correctness.”

Dudley, a 1970 Oxford High School graduate, moved to the lake as a teenager in 1965, then moved back there with her husband in 1980.

She thinks the name is “fine” and as far as she knows “we’ve never had any issues” with people being offended by it.

Peggy Reddaway, a resident of Squaw Lake since 1976, said she’s “not offended” by the name. “It never occurred to me to be offended by it,” she said.

McTaggart agreed.

“I don’t find it offensive,” he said.

McTaggart noted he’s always been “pretty happy” with the name because he viewed it as a “nice” tie to the area’s early Native American inhabitants.

“No one has ever complained (about it) that I’m aware of,” he said.

Reddaway believes “erasing everything that offends somebody” has become a “mission” for some people.

“I just don’t go along with it,” she said. “I think that this erasing of our history is wrong.”

To McTaggart, renaming it Point Lake because it is supposedly shaped like an arrow pointing “makes no sense . . . at all.” He said he’s flown over it and “it’s really quite round.”

“It doesn’t appear round when you’re on the ground, but from the air, it really is quite a round lake,” he explained. “Quite frankly, it makes no sense to change the name.”

 

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