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The word so offends Muriel Charwood-Litzau that she's embarrassed to tell people where she's from. She won't write it on letters to her father. She won't even use it in a sentence.

The word is "squaw." And when Charwood-Litzau, a high school teacher of American Indian studies, is forced to use it - when, for example, she has to include a return address - she abbreviates it as "sq."Now, with the help of her daughter and another student, she was able to get rid of the word in Minnesota.

Sort of.

Last year, Minnesota became the first state to require counties to rename "geographic features" - 19 lakes, streams and points - with the word squaw in them. Squaw Lake, the lake, has been changed to Nature's Lake.

But Squaw Lake, Charwood-Litzau's hometown on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, has not. The law, a small first step, applied only to such geographic features, not to city names.

"To me, it is demeaning, it's derogatory, it's a put-down. It's used against Indian women and it even sounds bad," she said. "Change is going to take awhile, but how do you put a price tag on a person's feelings?"

The problem, Charwood-Litzau says, is that squaw is a French corruption of an Iroquoian epithet for vagina.

Some linguists disagree. And some opponents - in Minnesota and in places as far away as Arizona and Oregon, where the anti-squaw campaign has spread - say the whole thing is stupid.

In fact, Minnesota's Lake County, near the Canadian border, has tried to change the names of Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay to "Politically Correct Creek" and "Politically Correct Bay."

The word squaw appears on more than 1,000 geographic features around the country, most of them concentrated in the Midwest and West, according to the United States Geological Survey's Board on Geographic Names.

Now, said board executive secretary Roger Payne, it has been inundated with squaw complaints and intends to take them up one at a time.

For example, a local tribe requested that Squaw Gulch in Siskiyou County, California, be changed to Taritsi Gulch. The California advisory committee on geographic names endorsed the change, despite opposition from local non-Indians and county officials, and sent it along to the national board.

In Arizona, an American Indian legislator and a Phoenix city councilman have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to delete squaw from the atlases.

And in Oregon, where 161 features have squaw in their name, there was talk of changing them all. So far, only Squaw Butte is changing. If approved by the federal board and the secretary of interior, it will become Piaute Butte, said Lewis McArthur of the Oregon Geographic Names Board.

But the change in the cattle country in the southeastern part of the state has little support among non-Indians, he said.

"The more publicity you have on these things, the more likely you're going to have somebody that takes offense to it. Fifty years ago, nobody paid attention to it," he said. "My guess is there is not too much sympathy for the Native Americans, and it's probably not looked upon too favorably. But I don't think in today's climate anyone is going to make any vociferous objection."

In Squaw Lake, a heavily wooded resort town of 139 permanent residents in northern Minnesota where hunting and fishing usually dominate discussion, the debate still rages.

Bruce Leimo, who grew up in Squaw Lake and owns The Hill restaurant, laundromat and motel, said it's fine with him to change the name - but he doesn't see some people changing their ways.

"It's the way you say it, it's not the word," he said.

Even some of the Chippewa tribal members who live in Squaw Lake doubt Charwood-Litzau's definition.

"For some people, it's offensive. To me, it is not," said Andrea LaDuke, who works at Squaw Lake's only convenience store.

Sharon Hahn, chairwoman of Lake County's board of commissioners, said most of her constituents did not want change.

"Are we going to go through any name that is derogatory to some people? Are we going to start changing them all? We could end up with a real mess in our country," she said.