Ashland’s controversial Dead Indian Memorial Road, long targeted for what's taken by many as 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, but rather, in 1855, whites found several deceased Native Americans up near the Cascade crest north of town.
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 the Jackson County Board of Commissioners held hearings and hoped, with the new, clunky name, the issue would go away. It didn’t.
The name still has the offensive “Dead Indian” in it.
Three times in the past month, at the corner of Hwy 66 and DIMR, 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 big turn, with public hearings scheduled before the Board of Commissioners in October to consider Vial’s proposal to make it Indian Memorial Road.
Vial brought it up to commissioners last February and has laid the groundwork by sampling opinion from surrounding tribes — Cow Creek, Siletz and Grand Ronde — and with commissioners of Jackson and Klamath Counties. Tribes all favored it but some objected to the word “Indian.” That was a minor issue, Vial says. He found “mixed feelings” with commissioners of both counties. If “strong feelings” against the change emerge from any of these groups, the proposal will be dropped.
Vial also ran it by the Post Office, 911 Call Center and Fire Districts, all of whom said the change would be a simple matter. Residents of the road may be contacted.
The Boards of 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.”
The road name may finally get on track with popular wishes, but from that long-ago incident, the name Dead Indian is all over the place — a valley, a creek, a crossing, a prairie — and it isn’t going away.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.