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Dropping 'Dead'?

Ashland’s controversial Dead Indian Memorial Road, long criticized for containing what many consider a racial slur, may be getting a new name.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners in 1993 bowed to public displeasure with the name and added the “Memorial.” However, many still find it offensive, as the “Dead Indian” remains.

Historians say white settlers had nothing to do with the deceased natives after which the road was originally named. In 1855, whites found two deceased Native Americans up near the Cascade crest north of town. The Native Americans were believed to have been killed by another tribe.

In 1870, Jackson County built a road from Ashland across the Cascades to Klamath Falls and didn’t name it. So, the locals named it, just by common usage — Dead Indian Road.

They meant no harm by the name, but they also had no sensitivities about it. Things changed in the 1960s. For the next few decades, people shook their heads about the road name, but finally, enough complaints piled up that county commissioners held hearings and hoped, with the new, clunky name, the issue would go away. It didn’t.

Three times in the past month, at the corner of the road and Highway 66, someone painted out the word “Dead,” leaving the street sign to read “Indian Memorial Road.” Three times, county road crews have gone out and wiped the paint off with solvent, says County Roads Director John Vial.

“The signs have a vandal-proof coating, so all we have to do is wipe it off, with solvent,” says Vial. What are his options? “Catch the offender by spending a lot of money on cameras or surveillance, then tell them they shouldn’t be doing that.”

Vial says he gets about three emails or calls each month complaining about the road name. Vial says this one is typical: “My family (took) a lovely trip to Western Oregon that included going from Ashland to Crater Lake. We chose the scenic route on Dead Indian Memorial Road — a name that struck our Colombian mestizo family with horror. Whatever the origin of this name, it should be banished from all geographical sites. It is truly unwelcoming. Perhaps it could be named after the tribe to which the slain native peoples belonged. Please do something about this. — Regards, Diana M. Grusczynski.”

Now, 147 years later, this story is about to take a turn.

Commissioners will host a public meeting about the name at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 11 in the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

Commissioner Rick Dyer says he understands the name is offensive to some people.

"We're going to solicit some public input and take that into consideration," he says. "We'll make a decision after we consider all that input."

Dyer says he knows it will be virtually impossible to find a name everyone can agree upon.

"We want to retain the historical significance. It really is a tribute. But you know you're not going to please everyone," he says.

Vial has proposed renaming the road Indian Memorial Road.

He brought it up to commissioners last February and has laid the groundwork by sampling opinion from surrounding tribes — Cow Creek, Siletz and Grand Ronde — plus commissioners of Jackson and Klamath counties. Tribes all favored a name change but some objected to the word “Indian.”

Vial also ran it by the Post Office, 911 call center and local fire districts, all of whom said the change would be a simple matter. Residents of the road may be contacted.

Commissioners have the sole authority to name county roads — and could even give it an entirely new name.

“I recognize there are strong feelings about this,” says Vial. “It will be interesting to see what the board does.”

Some local residents have proposed entirely new names.

Dan Mackay of Ashland says the name of Dead Indian Soda Springs Camp was changed to Camp Latgawa after the United Methodist Church, which operates the site in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, formed a committee to research the issue. The Latgawa people are a branch of the Takelma Tribe. He suggests the road could be renamed Latgawa Memorial Road.

For thousands of years, the Takelmas lived in what are now called the Rogue and Illinois River valleys. Many died from smallpox epidemics after exposure to European settlers.

In the 1850s, most remaining tribe members were forcibly removed and relocated to reservation land near the northern Oregon coast. The Takelma were joined on the reservations by their neighbors, the Athapaskans and the Shasta, as well as tribes from even farther away, such as the Coos and Tillamook, according to the National Park Service.

Ashland resident David Hyde, an advocate of a name change, says some people already have taken the matter into their own hands through moves like changing the road signs. He says some people write Indian Memorial Road as the address on mail, and letters still arrive.

Hyde says changing the name would put the county in step with changes being made statewide and nationally. Oregon schools, for example, have been moving away from Native American mascots. But he also has encountered people who want the Dead Indian Memorial Road name to stay.

"There are people who just simply don't want to have it changed," Hyde says.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org. Reporter Vickie Aldous contributed to this story.

A sign describes the history of Dead Indian Memorial Road. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
The 'Dead' in Dead Indian Memorial Road has been painted over several times at the Highway 66 intersection in Ashland. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]