Why Oregon is stumbling over Swastika Mountain

The northwestern state has a dilemma renaming a peak named long before the symbol gained its dark notoriety


Aerial shot of agricultural land with Mount Hood seen in distance with its snowcapped peak in Oregon, USA.

Swastika Mountain is not the site of an occult Nazi shrine. Not until now, anyway, because nobody noticed it was there until this year.

This is because it is in the woods near Eugene, Oregon, and those are frequented mostly by bears or campers with a death wish.

In January, a US Coast Guard helicopter plucked two campers off Swastika Mountain, presumably after the usual camping experience: bad weather, no sleep, backache, unbearable body odour.

The bears were hibernating, it being January, so the rescue made the local papers. That brought Swastika Mountain to the attention of 81-year-old Joyce McClain.

“People need to come forward and take action when they see something that isn’t right or needs to be changed,” McClain told NPR. She contacted Kerry Tymhuck at the Oregon Historical Society.

“It is not a very well-known mountain and, frankly, I didn’t know there was one,” Tymhuck said. He discovered that the mountain and the now-defunct town of Swastika, Oregon had been there since around 1909.

The mountain should have been especially hard to miss, what with it being over 4,000 feet tall. No one seems to have missed the town, and it’s not clear when it died off.

Swastika town and Swastika Mountain were named after a nearby ranch, also now defunct. The rancher, Clayton E Burton, was in the habit of branding his cattle with a swastika.

Nothing wrong with that, unless you were a cow. In 1909, Adolf Hitler was a struggling watercolourist.

In the West, the swastika was closely associated with scholarly interest in Eastern religions, and progressive thought, especially its German Romantic wing, Lebensreform, or “life reform”. Again with the hiking.

Hiking, also known as deliberately walking in the wrong direction, has recovered from its close association with the Hitler Youth, but the swastika remains more than a little controversial.

At least, it does in the West. Imagine Joyce McClain’s reaction if she took a holiday in India.
Those of you who have better things to do than hiking or fending off bears will know the hit TV series Parks and Recreation.

Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a mid-level official in the Parks Department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. From every good impulse, a new variety of bureaucratic dysfunction springs. The scriptwriters based some of the plots of real-life local politics in California. What followed is pure Parks and Rec.
Joyce McClain suggested Umpqua Mountain, after the Native American name for a local river.

But there’s already an Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, an Umpqua Dunes RV Park, an Umpqua River RV Park, and the Umpqua State Scenic Corridor, which connects the Umpqua Dunes RV Park and the River Umpqua Park through the Umpqua Valley and is basically a road with a view.

The Historical Society suggested renaming Swastika Mountain after Chief Halito. He was the leader of the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe in the 1840s when Fort Umpqua was established. Soon afterwards, the federal government shoved most of Chief Halito’s people onto the Umpqua Reservation.

Joyce McClain agreed that “Halito” was better. It isn’t clear who realised that “Halito” sounds like “halitosis”, and that though this is also part of the camping experience, it might be better to shorten the new name to Mount Halo. The proposal is now with the US Board of Geographical Names, so when it becomes official is anyone’s guess.

Oregon already has places named Boring, Idiotville, TNT Creek, Big Hole, Democrat Gulch, Whorehouse Meadow, Whiskey Dick, and Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain.

These all reflect the state’s recent and generally pointless history, so I don’t see why Swastika shouldn’t be on the map too. It might be different if Oregon’s sizeable neo-Nazi population had made Swastika Mountain a shrine, but (surprisingly) camping isn’t among their many stupidities.

There isn’t much history in the American Northwest as it is. Rewriting the past to suit modern tastes is always a mistake, whether in the middle of nowhere or the middle of a city. First you rename it, then you forget what was there before and what it means. As the Jews and the Yoncalla Kalapuya know, it’s better to live with it and keep living.

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