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Long overlooked, Oregon's Swastika Mountain may have a new name soon

Swastika Mountain, in Oregon's Umpqua National Forest, is in the process of being renamed after bearing the moniker for over a century. Due to its remote location, the mountain and its name have largely gone unnoticed until now.

Joyce McClain first heard of Swastika Mountain after reading about two hikers who were rescued from the peak in January. The 81-year-old couldn't believe that a mountain could still bear that name in 2022.

So, she decided to do something about it.

"People need to come forward and take action when they see something that isn't right or needs to be changed, because one person can make a difference, and this shows how that is so true," McClain told NPR.

She reached out to the Oregon Historical Society and its Oregon Geographic Names Board, filling out the paperwork to propose a name change. Kerry Tymchuk, executive secretary at the historical society, said McClain is the first person he knows of to submit a request for the mountain.

"It is not a very well-known mountain, and frankly, I didn't know there was one," Tymchuk told NPR. "It's in a national forest, not accessible to many people like Mount Hood or Mount St. Helen. It's not very well-known throughout the state; the vast majority of people likely never even knew it was there."

He said the mountain and a nearby town were named Swastika in the early 1900s — long before the Nazis — after a local ranch that bore the name and used the symbol to brand cattle. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the symbol signified well-being in multiple ancient societies across the world, until it was co-opted by Adolf Hitler.

Despite its innocent origin story, Tymchuk said that it's important to consider what a geographic feature is called and what that name represents.

"What we name things, our features, reflects history, but also reflects values. And as history changes, so do values," he said. "And certainly, something bearing the name Swastika in 1903 is different than in 2022, when it's been associated with such an evil person and evil ideology."

The historical society and its board are considering renaming it Mount Halo, named after Chief Halito of the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe. McClain, who had proposed that it be renamed to Umpqua Mountain, withdrew her suggestion, believing Halo to be a better fit for the mountain.

Board members will vote on the name change in a December meeting, after a 60-day comment period and gathering input from tribal authorities in the state. From there, the request will be submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for final approval.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.

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