Skip to main content

Maine town removes offensive name

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine - It took almost a year and a formal complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, but this tiny coastal town is finally free of the offensive word ''squaw'' in its place names.

The board of selectmen voted unanimously Oct. 18 to remove the word ''squaw'' from the name of a road, a point of coastal land and an island, and replace it with ''Defence'' in memory of an historic American ship that was scuttled by the Americans in the town's harbor during the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 to prevent the British from seizing it.

In 2001, Maine passed an offensive names act, introduced by Passamaquoddy legislative representative Donald Soctomah, that mandates towns abandon the word ''squaw'' in their street names and landmarks.

Almost all towns came into compliance, but Stockton Springs and Washington County dragged their feet. In July, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission filed formal complaints with the state's Human Rights Commission against the two places.

Washington County came into compliance in September without controversy, but the issue became heated in Stockton Springs.

Efforts to comply with the law were met with fierce opposition from the town's Squaw Point Home Owners Association, a private organization that owns what was formerly called Squaw Point Road and is now Defence Point Road.

''I'm glad we finally got it settled,'' said Sara Branford, chairman of the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen, who had supported the name change from the beginning.

''It would be a year in November that we've been trying to resolve this. We really tried to work with the Homeowner's Association and the residents, because we felt it was important to have their input, and that was part of the reason for the delay. But we felt we had given them enough time and it was time to really come up with a word that would be acceptable,'' Branford said.

Stockton Springs is located in the Penobscot Indian Tribe's aboriginal territory, but is not within their settlement lands.

The association balked for months at the name change request. The group proposed changing the name to Squapoint, and then suggested a change to Squall Point.

The variations, which were seen as an effort to do an ''end run'' around the law, were almost as offensive as the word ''squaw,'' said Rhonda Frey, a Penobscot member who had urged the name change at several meetings over the past year.

''I am so pleased the board of selectmen finally took the initiative. It was very disappointing that the association continued to try to skirt the law, so I'm glad the selectmen took a stand and said, 'This is enough.' I commend them for doing the right thing,'' Frey said.

Frey said she was spurred by the attitude and remarks of some association members to continue pressing for justice. ''At the last meeting, I was told by one of the association members, 'You don't have to come back. We don't want your suggestions.' And I thought, that is my invitation to come back. I'm not going to miss the next meeting especially because of what he just said. The law was passed and they were supposed to do this a long time ago.''

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the MITSC, said the commission is pleased with the outcome.

''We're proud of the fact that all the towns are in compliance now and that the Stockton Springs selectmen chose to abandon any form of 'squaw.' That will be well received by the Wabanaki people. MITSC is committed to promoting positive tribal-state relations and this is going to help promote positive relations,'' he said, adding that he hopes that association members ''who seem to be threatening some sort of action'' will think carefully before acting.

''They don't have to feel they've lost. We only lose when we don't respect our neighbors, when there's a group saying this is hurtful and this is harmful. The new name that's been adopted has historical significance for this community. That's a win-win situation,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

But the association is not likely to accept the change without a fight, according to Dan Coulters, vice president of the association.

''I'm sure our association plans to do something,'' Coulters told Indian Country Today.

''I haven't had a chance to meet them since that [selectmen 's] meeting, so I don't know what yet. But it was a bad decision. There's lots of reasons I think it's bad, but I don't really care to spend a lot of time going into it,'' Coulter said.

It's not clear what, if any, options the association may have to fight the selectmen's decision.

Branford said she hopes the issue will not create a permanent conflict in the town.

The name change was not really an option, Branford said: ''I really felt that once it was brought to our attention, it was in the town's best interest and, actually, because of the fact that this exists in law, it's not something we had a choice about to begin with; and the fact that it was considered offensive really meant that we were obligated to make a change.''