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Local governments slapped with offensive names complaints

AUGUSTA, Maine - Since the state Legislature banned the use of the offensive word ''squaw'' six years ago, 36 place names have been changed in compliance.

On July 11, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission filed complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission against two local governments that have dragged their feet in ridding landmarks in their areas of the derogatory word that offends American Indians and their supporters.

''The only communities that are technically - and I want to stress technically - not in compliance are Stockton Springs and Washington County,'' said MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall, who filed the complaints following a vote by commissioners.

This is the first time MITSC has filed complaints under the offensive names act that was introduced by Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the state Legislature, and passed in 2001.

The law bans the use of the word ''squaw'' in all circumstances, but allows the use of ''squa'' in combination with other letters as long as they form one word.

''Apparently, there is a legitimate [in the Algonquin language] word 'squapan,' so the law allows s-q-u-a in combination without a space. But I think some people view that as a loophole and I think that's what's going on in Stockton Springs,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

MITSC will likely go back to the Legislature to close that loophole, Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

Stockton Springs includes an island called Squaw Point, another called Squaw Head Island, and a Squaw Point Road. The town is in the Penobscot Tribe's aboriginal lands, but outside of the tribe's settlement lands.

The town's housing association wants to change the name of Squaw Point to Squapoint, abiding by the letter, but not the spirit of the law, Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

Rhonda Frey, a Penobscot member, said she went to the Board of Selectmen in January when she heard the town was trying to resolve the issue.

''I suggested Manakwane, which means 'she is like a rainbow,' after a tribal member who died in a car accident a few years ago. She was 16 and she was such a beautiful person. I thought it would be appropriate to take something so ugly and turn it into something as beautiful as her Native name,'' Frey said.

The selectmen were interested at first, but later one of them backed down and said he would agree to whatever the town housing association wanted. So Frey attended a few housing association meetings where she presented her suggestion.

''There were several people who wanted the name Manakwane, who didn't want to offend the Natives, but I met some opposition from one of the members. He said, 'Why didn't you come with this issue a long time ago if you didn't like it?' I said, 'Do you realize we had to pass an education bill to get the history of Wabanaki people into the classroom because they always teach about [Indians] out West, but never about the Native people here?''' Frey asked.

Frey said she was ''glad'' MITSC is pursuing the complaint because the ''we don't care what you think, we're going to do it anyway'' attitude of those opposing the name change was itself offensive.

Frey is a broadcast journalist with a radio talk show called ''Indigenous Voices,'' which broadcasts every third Tuesday of the month from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and can be downloaded as a podcast at www.weru.org.

Sara Bradford, chairman of the Stockton Springs Selectmen's Board, said she was reluctant to comment because the board had not yet received or discussed the complaint.

But both Frey and Dieffenbacher-Krall said Bradford was personally in favor of ''doing the right thing.''

''She doesn't want to appall anyone. She doesn't want to make anyone feel bad,'' Frey said.

Dieffenbacher-Krall said the intransigence of those refusing to even consider dropping the offensive term is ''repugnant'' to him.

''Even if you don't understand it intellectually, if there's someone in your community saying, 'This is offensive,' you'd think just on the basis of neighborliness and respect that they'd say, 'OK, we won't use that offensive word anymore.' But no, they have to dig their heels in and argue.''

The Human Rights Commission will do an investigation and determine whether the town is in violation. Then the question is how to enforce the law.

''MITSC is still researching what our next legal step would be. But I know I wouldn't want to be an elected official in a community that the Human Rights Commission, a respected body that deals with civil rights and issues of racism and discrimination, had found in violation,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.