By Glenda Anderson
The California State Historical Resource Commission today is expected to re-designate what for more than 50 years has been known as Squaw Rock.
Henceforth, it officially will be known as Frog Woman Rock, reflecting a Pomo Indian legend of a man-eating creature, part frog and part woman, who lived in a cave in the face of the rock.
Squaw Rock is being jettisoned as the name of California Landmark No. 549 because of its questionable roots in local Indian lore and also to eliminate the word squaw, originally an East Coast Indian word that has taken on a derogatory connotation, said tribal representatives and state historians.
As that story goes, a young chief named Cachow from a Cloverdale tribe promised to marry Sotuka, daughter of the chief of the Sanel tribe in Hopland. But he instead married another woman. In anger and despair, Sotuka, holding a great stone, threw herself from the cliff, killing herself along with Cachow and his new wife, who were camping at the base of the cliff.
In central Pomo dialect, the name for the rock is Maatha kawao qhabe, which translates as frog woman rock, according to a study by linguist Victoria Patterson in 1985. And in local Pomo legend, the giant rock north of Cloverdale was home to Frog Woman, a mythological figure often portrayed as the clever and powerful wife of Coyote, who makes many appearances in Pomo lore as a trickster. She also makes appearances as the wife of Obsidian Man.
1) Most young Native women can't lift a "great stone" big enough to crush two people.
2) It's a cone-shaped rock, not a sheer cliff. A woman couldn't leap to her "death" because she'd bounce down the incline a few times before coming to a rest. If she were lucky, she might not even injure herself.
3) Given the rock's shape, there's no way a woman could hit two people at the bottom with her own body and a stone held in her grasp. The woman and the stone would fly in different directions. And it's unlikely the stone would land anywhere near the targets.
4) How could the legend's scenario have happened? The woman climbed laboriously to the top of the rock? And waited on the off-chance that the chief and his new lover would stop below her? Then found a conveniently sized rock on the bare hilltop and threw it and herself down the slope?
That's pretty damn ridiculous if you think about it. What happens if the chief and his new lover don't stop at the base of the rock? She climbs back down and climbs up another day? How many days in a row did she do this until the chief conveniently stopped directly below her?
Again, this isn't a cliff that people pass by on their way to the village every day. It's an isolated cone-shaped rock. There's no way anyone would climb it to commit homicide or suicide.
Romanticizing dead Indians
The name is flawed for other reasons as well:
1) Why emphasize the "squaw" portion of the legend? Why not Unfaithful Chief Rock, Suicide Rock, or Crushed Bodies Rock? Could it be to romanticize the "vanishing Indian"? Because thinking about star-crossed lovers is more comforting than thinking about ethnic cleansing?
2) Judging by the number of "Lovers Leap" place names based on Native legends, Indian maidens committed suicide at an enormous rate. Maybe this is the origin of the high suicide rates still prevalent on reservations.
That's a sarcastic way of saying most if not all of these legends are phony and derivative. We shouldn't encourage the false belief--a subset of the romantic- and vanishing-Indian tropes--that Indians killed themselves in tragic circumstances. Unless we have hard evidence that a legend is true, there's no reason to immortalize it with a place name. And every reason to use a culturally appropriate replacement.
For more on romanticized Indians, see Love/Hate Relationship with Indians, Lamenting Indians = Letting Indians Die, and Hollywood Loves Dying Indians.
Squaw Rock = Indian mascots
This issue is much like the renaming of sports team names and mascots. Basically, who the hell cares about something so trivial? No one's forcing you to think or saying something you don't want to. You still can call it Squaw Rock to yourself, or among your friends and family members. There's no penalty whatsoever for using the old name.
What you can't do, though, is control the agenda beyond your own sphere of influence. You can't tell the community or the world that your Anglo-American history and culture are the only ones that matter. Someone else gets to say how we name geographic places--and by extension, how we frame other issues and arguments.
That's what this is all about: the loss of white power and privilege. Euro-Americans can't stand losing the power they've exercised for the last 500 years. They don't want to share it; they want it all.
No "dirty redskin" is going to tell them they were wrong to steal this land. To rename it, develop it, or ruin it. Americans think they have a right to everything from the air and water to their "pet" Indian mascots. Anyone who disagrees is a threat to their centuries-old dominance.
In short, Indian place names and mascots are like a baby bottle or security blanket for childish Americans scared of the dark (people).
For more on geographic place names, see Explorers Didn't Consider "Squaw" Offensive and Changing Park Name = Guilt Trip?
Below: "The above landmark rock formation towering over the Russian River and Highway 101 in southern Mendocino County will get a new name Friday: Frog Woman Rock." (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)