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Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008
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Several years ago, there was a concerted effort on the part of a handful of academic Native Americans to reclaim (rehabilitate) the ‘squaw’ word; a term that was originally positive, turned into a pejorative by white settlers who all but destroyed aboriginal culture. The rehab project was a daunting challenge that was greeted by controversy and significant resistance, much of it coming from Native American communities, many of whom wanted the derogatory term stricken from official language and eliminated as a place name reference (Squaw Valley, Saskatchewan). Jim Fay examines the history of the word and the implications of language censorship. Ed.


Traditional Algonquian cultures were highly matriarchal and women-centered in ways that civilized, institutional cultures are not. In the Algonquian family of languages the word “squaw” meant "woman" or "young woman," and the squaw “stem” or syllable was used in more complex words or expressions dealing with women. As such, the word "squaw" and the "squaw" stem were and are as an important a part of the language and thought as the role of the squaw was and is in the culture itself.

There is nothing at all obscure or disputable about the early history of the word “squaw.” It was used repeatedly in the one of the very first studies of any Algonquian language, Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America, published in 1643. An excerpt from this work included in the standard college textbook The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I includes a translation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve into the Narragansett language. In this translation, the Narragansett word used for woman was “squaw.”

A nineteenth century survey of Algonquian languages by Peter Stephen DuPonceau traced the stem across those languages as it was used in expressions to refer to both "woman" and "girl." Cited examples of usage of the term were all either neutral or positive. Words with negative connotations used another stem.

Handbook of American Indian Language, edited by Franz Boas and published in 1904, is considered a classic in its field. In that work, William Jones uses the "squaw" stem in the Fox language as literally a textbook example of how references to parts of the body are used to express what are often very subtle concepts. Sometimes these associations are fairly straightforward, using "belly" or "abdomen" stems, for example, to express protuberances or a fullness. Sometimes the associations are meaningful only to someone who has grown up in the culture, such as using "ear" references to express something as thin as a sheet or film.

The use of the term for "neck" to express femininity involves a kind of evolution of meaning, in this case from "neck" to "nape of the neck" to "hair at the nape of the neck" as a woman would wear, to "'wooable" young woman," to "femininity" with almost invariably desirable and positive connotations.

The word “squaw” or the squaw "stem" or syllable is alive and well on contemporary web pages dealing with traditional Algonquian language and culture where it is used in its traditional way. The “squaw dance” is a popular staple of modern powwows and is often seen as a right-of-passage of young girls into womanhood and into the traditional expertise and virtues associated with that role. Likewise, “squaw dance” music is popular staple of modern Native American music.

Many activists however, both Native and non-Native, have begun saying over the last few years that the expression “squaw” is not a Native expression at all, but rather a degrading sexual invective coined by Europeans based on an obscure Mohawk slang for female anatomy. This Mohawk-derived etymology is offered as undisputed fact in the media, in legal proceedings and on the ‘net, although linguists have repeatedly pointed out that the Mohawk syllable in question bears no relationship to the squaw stem. As a scholar from the Smithsonian Institution points out, they are not even in the same family of languages.

There is a campaign to eliminate the word squaw from "official" language such as geographical names, and it has acquired the force of law in some states. One state has replaced the word “squaw” with the word “moose” in geographic names in that state wherever at all practical. In many instances it is not practical because often the locations were given the “squaw” name in the first place because they were particularly picturesque or beautiful, attributes not usually associated with the moose. Renaming the Squaw Bosom Hills was particularly problematical.

The campaign to eliminate of the word “squaw” from geographical names prompted one expert in the field to write a short paper about the issue. William Bright is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics & Anthropology, UCLA; Professor Adjoint of Linguistics, University of Colorado, Boulder; Editor, Written Language and Literacy; and Editor, Native American Placenames of the United States.

In “The Sociolinguistics of the 'S- Word': 'Squaw' in American Placenames” he writes “All linguists who have commented on the word ‘squaw,’ including specialists on Indian languages and on the history of American vocabulary, agree that it is not from Mohawk, or any other Iroquoian language.” It is instead the basis for Algonquian words for “young woman” or “woman” that are “still used in the many Algonquian languages of North America.”

He noted that the expression has been used derogatorily by whites and gives a couple of examples from literature and history. He notes with dismay that until very recently dictionaries offered no indication that, on balance, the popular use of the term was disparaging, citing instead representative, value-neutral examples of usage of the term.

He says that some Indian activists assert that the word "squaw" is as offensive to many Indians as the term "nigger" is to Blacks. In a commentary on the anomalies of “‘politically correct’ vocabulary” he mentions more or less in passing that “some Indians report that they do not find the word offensive.” He offered no indication that any Indians, and particularly any Indian women, identified positively with the term.

He concluded by laying aside questions of linguists and asserting that the “subjective associations” based on “misapprehensions of fact” are sometimes “just as important as actual usage.” He stated that there should be “no room for terms that give offense” to minorities. He therefore supported the elimination of the word “squaw” from place names, not for linguistic or sociolinguistic reasons, but as a “simple courtesy” to help eliminate racism and bigotry.

This is a common argument. One of the leading proponents of the campaign against the word “squaw” is a Prairie Band Potawatomi social worker at an Indian university. At one set of hearings she asserted that the Potawatomi find the word “squaw” degrading, although her objection was the only one from the university officials and Indian tribes in the area who were asked to offer opinions on the issue. Moreover, one Potawatomi language web page documents that the term is not only used to mean woman, but also in such honorific expressions as “Woman of the Year” or “Lady of Honor.” The social worker argued, however, that the term should be eliminated even if only two people are offended by it.

Many Indian women, on the other hand, remain proud to think of themselves as squaws. As one traditional Indian women’s association puts it, the word “squaw” expresses “the totality of being female” and efforts to eliminate the word impoverish both their language and culture. They feel they owe it to their ancestors not to let the word become seen as merely dirty slang. These women who defend the word “squaw” are often the target of nasty, public, abusive sexual accusation. At least one has received death threats.

There is no doubt that these women’s fears are being realized, that the traditional positive or neutral connotations of the term are being replace by “filthy language” ones.

In Maine, an official for the Penobscot Indian Nation said that it had never occurred to anyone that their use of the term to name geographical locations on tribal lands could be offensive, but, since the state legislature brought it to their attention “now, all of a sudden, it's repulsive to us.”

At powwows, especially those attended by non-Indians, “squaw dances” are sometimes being renamed “women’s dances.” Sometimes the nature of the dance, as well as the name, is being changed so that neither reflects anything about gender or the traditional virtues associated with gender.

Few would argue with the value of simple courtesy or argue for racism and bigotry. But one my ask why the distinguished linguist was any more qualified than anyone else to make moral judgments about which “subjective associations” are simple courtesy and which are racism and bigotry.

Does “simple courtesy” demand that those who hold positive “subjective associations” about the term be characterized as racists and bigots?

Is there any reason why the sensibilities of “two people” who are offended by the word “squaw” carry more weight than those of “two people” who are proud to be squaws?

In a reasonably free society, is it really reasonable to eliminate anything, even through subjective “misapprehensions of fact,” that offends two people?

Does this imply that there are not two Blacks in American who are offended by “gangsta rap” such as “All Women are Whores” which seems to vindicate the nastiest stereotypes about what is the norm in Black culture? Even instances of gangsta rap that fall within the statutory definition of a felony are reviewed in the New York Times as an art form.

The controversy over “gangsta rap” such as “All Women Are Whores” offers an ironic counterpoint to the "squaw" controversy. Although the album was roundly criticized by a wide array of critics, it was nominated for Album of the Year, featured on the Grammy Award ceremonies, and reviewed in various mainstream media as a valid work of art. It was also defended by some (and some black women) as a symptom of the poisonous effects of white racism and, consequently, a valid voice of the Black experience. This prompted an emphatic response from other Blacks that the image presented in the “gangsta rap” music and videos was decidedly not a valid portrayal of Black people in any way, shape, or form.

While the word "squaw" is admittedly the subject of a confusing array of both positive and negative "subjective associations," the rap album explicitly celebrates sociopathologies and psychopathologies such as incest, torture, abuse, rape and murder. And yet, although the rap album is widely condemned, there is little or no suggestion that it should actually be eradicated from our culture. But this suggestion -- or, more correctly, this demand -- is exactly the whole point of the controversy surrounding the word "squaw."

Racism and bigotry are, of course, malignancies in any culture. But any headlong rush, no matter how well-intentioned, to eliminate from a culture things that are deemed offensive should be send shivers down the spine of anyone who has ever heard of lynching trees and concentration camp ovens.

Almost any word that people use can be and probably is sometimes used in a vulgar, demeaning or profane manner. The words "God" and "mother" come immediately to mind. Perhaps in some cases the use of the word "squaw" as a place name is inappropriate. But whenever the decision is made that the use of the term is, on balance, so demeaning that it must be discontinued, everyone concerned must appreciate the full consequences of those actions and the extent to which the very culture and language of us all has been impoverished by the loss.

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