Oregon’s Swastika Mountain got its name long before the Nazis rose to power—and in the many years since then, for reasons unknown, the name has endured. But now, activists are pushing to change it.
The Oregon Geographic Names Board, a volunteer committee tasked with renaming Oregon landscapes and bodies of water, has confirmed that the 4,197-foot-tall mountain, located in Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest, will likely be named Mount Halo, reports Grace Smith for the television station KEZI-TV.
The change comes, in part, thanks to Oregon resident Joyce McClain, who first learned about the ill-named butte after reading a news report back in January about two hikers who were rescued from a snowstorm on Swastika Mountain.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and so I had to do something about it,” McClain tells KEZI-TV.
After some research, McClain discovered that the mountain got its moniker from a tiny, extinct town called Swastika, named after a cattle rancher who branded his cattle with the symbol in the early 1900s.
“It is not a very well-known mountain, and frankly, I didn’t know there was one,” Kerry Tymchuk of the Oregon Historical Society tells NPR’s Dustin Jones. “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.”
At the time when rancher Clayton E. Burton chose to brand his cattle with the swastika, the symbol, which in Sanskrit translates to “well-being,” carried a different meaning than it does today. It had been long used by many religions and was considered a symbol of good fortune. Even in the years immediately preceding Nazi Germany, it could be found everywhere from Coca-Cola products to publications from the Boy Scouts and the Girls’ Club of America. The swastika even appeared in World War I, when members of an American infantry division wore it on their shoulder patches.
The meaning behind the swastika changed once it became associated with the Nazis. In the late 19th century, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the symbol at the site of ancient Troy, and he hypothesized that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors,” per the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Racist groups then began interpreting the swastika as a symbol of “Aryan identity,” and the Nazi Party officially adopted it as its symbol in 1920. It is still used by today’s white supremacists.
Even though Swastika Mountain has no connection to Nazism or white supremacy, officials believe a change is long overdue. McClain originally suggested the name Umpqua Mountain, after the Native American tribe that first lived there. David Lewis, a tribal historian, suggested renaming it Mount Halo, after Chief Halito, leader of the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe, who had lived some 20 miles from the mountain. McClain ended up preferring Mount Halo and withdrew her suggestion. A final decision for the renaming will be made in December.