Daily Archives: December 8, 2023

Reparative Description of the Term “Squaw” in SCARC Collections

Oregon State University boasts the title of Oregon’s largest public research university with thirteen research and experiment stations across the state. Some of these stations have been associated with Oregon State for nearly a century. Among them is the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. Recent archival work dealing with this experiment center and its previous names has led SCARC to evaluate the use of the term “squaw” in our collections as part of our ongoing work to address racist, outdated, and inaccurate descriptive language in our finding aids.

The word “squaw” is derogatory. Historically, it has been used as a misogynist and racist slur to disparage Indigenous American women. Even so, the United States Department of the Interior reported in 2021 that 650 geographic sites in the United States contained the term in their name, including Squaw Butte in Lake County, Oregon. In the same report, the department stated its intent to rename each of these sites. As of January 2023, many of these sites had been renamed. The landform in Lake County is now known as Stairstep Butte. 

As a landmark topographic feature, this butte influenced the establishments surrounding it. Among these establishments is the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. Historically, this field station was named Squaw Butte Range Livestock Station after the nearby mountain peak. 

The previous name of this station came to light via work on the News and Communications Services Records. Among the thousands of biographical materials in this collection are those of Carl Lawrence Foster, who was a professor of agriculture who worked at the station beginning in 1970. After writing Foster’s biography, SCARC staff researched and compiled the history of the station with particular attention to its name changes over the years. 

Established in 1935, the Squaw Butte Range Livestock Station merged in 1944 with the Harney Branch Station. The newly-formed station was named the Squaw Butte Harney Range and Livestock Experiment Station. This was renamed the Squaw Butte Experiment Station in 1954. Another merger occurred in 1974 with the Eastern Oregon Experiment Station under directors Martin Vavra and R. J. Raleigh, forming the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center.  

Although the station’s name was changed, it was not changed as an acknowledgement of the harmful nature of the original. Even after the merger, the 16,000 acres that had previously been the Squaw Butte Experiment Station were still referred to colloquially as “Squaw Butte Station” for several years by locals and Oregon State employees alike, as evidenced in the Oregon’s Agricultural Progress publications from winter 1976 and spring 1981. It appears that this nickname waned in use in the early 1990s. 

After the historical context of this experiment station was established, SCARC looked to other uses of “squaw” in its collections in order to evaluate its use and provide a similar context. Many other uses of the slur were in reference to the Squaw Butte Experiment Station, as well as geographic features across Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, including valleys and creeks. Other times, the word was used in the context of colloquial species names, such as “squawfish” or “squaw grass”. However, in two collections (the Ralph I. Gifford Photographs and the Gerald W. Williams Prints and Postcards of Native Americans Collection), the slur is used to refer to Native American women. In both collections, the word is found in the captions and descriptions of images of these women.

SCARC acknowledges that the racism and misogyny represented by the term “squaw” may cause harm to our users. In order to provide historical context and enable standardized searching and access across our collections, we have retained the use of this phrase in collection descriptions. However, we have also added a note to each affected collection to inform users of its context, along with a link to the SCARC Special Collections and Archives Research Center Anti-Racist Actions website and this blog post. Providing access to these historical materials does not endorse any attitudes or behavior depicted therein. 

List of SCARC Collections Reviewed: 

This work was completed in large part due to the initiative of Grace Knutsen (Student Archivist) and the support of the Squaw subgroup: Anna Dvorak (Public Services Assistant), Natalia Fernández (Curator of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives), and Cydney Hill (University Records Manager).