THE SQUAW WORD
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“simple courtesy” demand that those who hold positive
“subjective associations” about the term be characterized
as racists and bigots?
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?
a reasonably free society, is it really reasonable to eliminate
anything, even through subjective “misapprehensions of
fact,” that offends two people?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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