Coquille or 'Ko-kwel' depends on context

So what's the deal with the Coquille tribe and how its name is pronounced? For years we've always pronounced the city name, the river name and the tribal name as "ko-keel"; now we find out it's supposed to be "ko-kwel." How come?

— Lewis H., Medford

We've had your question bouncing around in our files for awhile now, Lewis, so when members of the Coquille tribe came to pay us a visit recently, we took the opportunity to ask them.

Turns out that there are two ways to pronounce the name, depending on whether you are talking about the tribe or the city and river. According to Brenda Meade, tribal council chairwoman, when you are discussing the tribe, the correct pronunciation is "ko-kwel."

That, she said, is a way of honoring the traditions of the tribe and its elders.

Meade noted the tribe is not interested in telling the residents of the city of Coquille or longtime river users that they should change the way they pronounce either one.

Nicole Norris, tribal historic preservation officer for the Coquilles, gave us some more detail in an email. Here it is:

"The pronunciation of the tribe's name as 'Ko-kwel' harkens back to a time when the Coquille River was full of a very important resource; lamprey eel, or 'Scoquel.' Scoquel is a word in one of the tribal languages (Chinook Wawa) spoken by the Coquilles that means 'lamprey.'

"As the U.S. fur trade grew and settlement began to occur in Western Oregon, the word for lamprey became the name for the river and the people who lived near it. When the area's first Indian treaties were written, Coquille became the name of the tribe. ... The authors of 'A Century of Coos and Curry Counties' wrote 'though the name was Coquille from the first (settlers and treaties in 1850s) it was pronounced 'Ko-kwel.' Sometime later, perhaps around the turn of the century, someone began calling it 'ko-keel.'

Norris said the tribe has been told by Coquille elders that the change in pronunciation "was initiated by merchants in the city of Coquille during the early 20th century, perhaps in an attempt to make the area more appealing to city high-society by aligning the name Coquille with one of the French words for shell."

The confusion over the names perhaps became more noticeable in the Rogue Valley recently, as the Coquille tribe has started the process of applying to open a casino in Medford. If we're going to lose our money to someone, we want to at least know how to pronounce the name.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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