Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Reclaiming "Squaw" - part 1

From The Cherokee Voice. Statesboro: Jun 30, 2001.Vol.27 pg. 8:


Copyright Georgia Southern University Jun 30, 2001

Kwai Kwai. Greetings.

I write to you as an alnobaskwa, an Abenaki woman, questioning the motion to gut our original language in the name of political correctness. Over the past few decades, in my travels as a traditional storyteller and historical consultant, I have met many indigenous speakers and elders who are concerned at the efforts of otherwise well-meaning people to erase all contemporary uses of the word "squaw."

And yet, there are people who refuse to believe that "squaw" could have originated in an Algonkian language, or that it could ever have had any meaning but a pejorative one. Some seem to believe that Europeans invented the word, and placed it on maps all over the country, with the sole intent of insulting Native women. Sadly, the misunderstanding of traditional languages runs so deep that contemporary Americans cannot distinguish between modern insults and traditional words. For many activists, the word "squaw" has come to symbolize the systematic rape and abuse of Indian women by white conquerors.

By way of explanation to readers on this issue, I have never supported continued use of the word as an insult directed at Native women, and I am not opposed to the concept of changing place names with the word "squaw" in them. But I do wish to provide some background documentation on the actual linguistic origins of the word in Algonkian languages, and the relatively modern historical and social processes by which it morphed into an insult. I ask that people try to understand, and respect, the difference between pejorative uses and indigenous contexts, between different Native languages, and between historical uses of Native words, past and present. I also ask that people not promote fictional word origins, or use traditional words in ways that are insulting to our ancestors and our elders.

Squaw etymology

Squaw is not an English word. It is a phonetic rendering of an Algonkian word, or morpheme, but it does not translate to mean any particular part of a woman's anatomy. Within the entire Algonkian family of languages, the root or morpheme, variously spelled "squa", "skwa", "esqua", "kwe", "squeh", "kw" etc. is used to indicate "female", not "female reproductive parts." Variants of the word are still in widespread use among northeastern peoples. Native speakers of Wabanaki languages use "nidobaskwa", to indicate a female friend, or "awassokwa", to refer to a female bear; Nipmuc and Narragansett elders use the English form "squaw" in telling traditional stories about women's activities or medicinal plants; when Abenaki people sing the "Birth Song", they address "nuncksquassis", the "little woman baby." The Wampanoag people, who are in the midst of an extensive language reclamation project, affirm that there is no insult, and no implication of a definition referring to female anatomy, in any of the original Algonkian forms of the word.

During the contact period, the word "squaw", just like the indigenous words wigwam, sachem, powwow, moose, and thousands of others, was adopted into the English language. In combination with other words or phrases, in both Algonkian and English usage, it carried no derogatory overtones. Squaw Sachem or Suncksuqa was the designated title of female chiefs like Awashonks, Weetamoo, Magnus, and one woman leader from Concord, Mass., who is only known to history by her title, "Squaw Sachem." Squaw vine, - root, -berry, etc. indicated medicinal plants that were efficacious remedies for women. In most historical contexts where the word was used by the English to name a plant or a place, or applied as an adjective, i.e.: "squaw boots", it was used to reflect Native American usage, knowledge and/or history, and not intended as an insult. (One notable excepting is the phrase "squaw man", which denoted a white man who had married into a tribe and was therefore subservient to his Native wife.)

Despite popular modern myths, the word did not come from the Kanienkehake (Mohawk) word "otsikwa", or "otsioskwa", which translates to "cornmeal mush." It does not translate to "whore" in any original indigenous language, despite modern misuse and misunderstandings. But who gets to decide, today, right now, what our original Native words mean? Who gave Euro-Americans the rights to redefine indigenous languages? And how did the word "squaw" end up at the center of a controversy over appropriate usage of words?

Historical Background and Squaw Definitions

Throughout most of the colonial period, the word "squaw" was not an insult. When Roger Willimas spoke with the Narragansett people in 1643, he was informed that "squaw" meant "woman," "squashim" indicated "a female animal," "keegsquaw" designated "a young virgin or maid," and "segousquaw" meant "a widow," among many other examples. Williams, as a white man, was not taught the specific words that describe female parts. Out of delicacy I will not print them here.

For most of the historic contact era, "squaw" was a simple, nonpejorative word. William Wood, writing in 1634, was the first to note that the word meant "an Indian woman or wife". John Russell Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" in 1859, noted that the word was in widespread use among all the Algonkian-speaking peoples:

SQUAW. (Abenaki Ind.) An Indian woman. Mr. Duponceau, after giving a list of the languages and forms in which this word occurs, observes: "On voit que la famille de ce mot s' étend depuis les Knisténaux en Canada, et les Skoffies et Montagnards d'Acadie, jusqu'au Nanticokes sur les confines de la Virginie." - Mém. sur les Langues d'Amérique du Nord, p. 333. John Russell Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States" Boston, Little, Brown & Co. 1859, p. 441.

For non-French speakers, Mr. Duponceau wrote that one can see that the people who use this word extend from the Knistenaux in the north (an old Inuit word for the people of the far north, to the Skoffies in the west (another name for the Skokomish or Snohomish peoples of the northwest coast and British Columbia) to the Montagnards across Canada (Montagnais) and all the way down to the Nanticokes of Virgina - a region that includes Canada, the Great Lakes, the Maritimes, and most of the eastern seaboard. In other words, all the "proto-Algonkian" speaking peoples utilized the morpheme "squaw" to mean "woman".

Even Indian people speaking in English often chose to say "squaw" rather than "woman". Susanna Johnson, an English captive among the Abenaki in 1754, wrote: "my new sisters and brothers treated me with the same attention they did their natural kindred." They gave her a horse, "for squaw to ride," and taught her "the occupation of the squaws." But when she got lazy, her new family "showed no other resentment than calling me 'no good squaw', which was the only reproach my sister ever gave me when I displeased her." (Note that the emphasis is on "no good," not on "squaw".)

William Wood also commented on the linguistic ability of Native people who learned English, when he observed:

"They love any man that can utter his mind in their words, yet are they not a little proud that they can speak the English tongue, using it as much as their own when they meet with such as can understand it, puzzling stranger Indians, which sometimes visit them from more remote places, with an unheard language."

"Of Their Language" in "New England's Prospect", William Wood, 1634.

Lost in Translation

While the original, harmless usage of Algonkian words like "squaw" persisted into the 20th century, especially in the northeast, among both Indians and whites, the insulting usage increased in mixed-race urban and reservation areas. During the late 19th century, Algonkian words that had come into common usage among Americans were carried west, by French fur traders and other whites, to tribes who were not Algonkian speakers. When the label "squaw" began to be used as a generic term for all Native women, especially those subject to attack by government soldiers, it took on a sexually dangerous connotation.

During westward expansion, "chief", "brave", "papoose", and "squaw" took on negative connotations as they were increasingly used as generic descriptions and epithets.


  1. Nigger......Negro......what ever the origins, the present fact is at hand, just because the the word Squaw can be "justified" doesnt make it right, and how do we know that your research is accurate.
    You have used whites words to "Justify" your comments.
    Just try to hand your line to Proud Native Women and see how its recieved.

  2. Thank you for commenting. I was just reprinting an article I thought worthy of some thought... Bottom line for me is -- whatever word it is -- if I know it is going to offend, I do not use it... Peace, Malcolm

  3. I as a, not so,native north american,find the flap of usage,purely self -indulging crap.As is the term Whites.Sign me a proud Potawatomi,from Shawnee!

  4. Thanks for a well-done summary of the word's origin and your documentation that supported it--I am familiar with many of the sources.

    Vilification by anonymous individuals should be taken for what it is, meaningless and cowardly.

    Again thanks for your efforts. I shall certainly attempt to treat the word "Squaw" with the original respect it had.

  5. Be proud of squaw, said mother.

    A young native woman I know was adopted to a white family.

    She grew up in an upper class white neighbourhood where she was teased and picked at by the boys calling her, "squaw".

    She'd come home to her mother in tears. Did her mother call the school or the parents to inform them that this was happening? No. She said to the young native girl, "Well, you are a squaw. You should be proud of it".

    How could anyone- let alone a child be proud of something that they are belittled and harassed with?

    To this day, my friend is haunted by her past and the lack of support she got from her parents when her peers attacked her with "squaw".

    Get rid of squaw. It's a term used only to hurt native women and does twice the damage when mother says, "be proud of squaw".

  6. AnonymousJune 20, 2006

    I am happy that this discussion is taking place in the spirit of caucus, in which everyone has his or her say.

    I am a mixed-race, mixed-culture (native and European) woman from southern New England, and I've replicated the research in this article, both in written sources (yes, mostly colonial whites, because they were the ones who could write) and oral ones. Roger Williams and John Eliot would hardly have used an insulting word in Narragansett or Massachusetts for a woman's body part instead of the proper word for woman in their translations of the Bible. Among the native women who have spoken and written on this issue is Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki speaker and singer. She confirmed what my mother taught me about the origins of the word.

    When I grew up--at first in a mixed-race federal housing project, then in a mixed neighborhood with whites, blacks, and other mixed-race kids--"squaw" and "half-breed" were taunts on a par with "n----r" and "s--c." I had to learn to defend myself physically as well as emotionally. My mother made it a point to teach me what the Narragansett word really meant, but this was in the context of her teaching me all the other words she knew for places and natural things around us, how to dig up and cook edible native plants, how to interpret dreams so that they are useful teachings, and how to treat people of other races and cultures with the respect that they are due. My mother was and is proud to be of mixed race and proud to be a squaw (squas). Learning pride in heritage from one's biological mother is quite different from a non-native mother telling her adopted daughter to be proud of what the mother herself is not. I think that is a different and special situation that families of interracial adoption have to deal with and can best advise one another about.

    I would like to point out to our brothers and sisters in the West that they know more of their own languages and have their own respectful words for "woman" and "wife." I believe it is perfectly reasonable for them to object to being called squaws, especially since that term has had negative connotations imposed on it by people who historically repressed them. They should teach us the words by which they wish to be called. However, we in the Northeast have lost enough of the words in our own languages that I wish they would let us women reclaim this perfectly respectable word for ourselves.

    Wunnoteag (Peace to you),

    M.E.L., Connecticut

  7. just read your article.. thought about it.. the word "squaw" hurts. I either too must have been misinformed but I choose not to use the word. I have been taught to use equay. I am an saulteaux Ojibway.. and I am proud of it.
    My name is Maang-Equay.

  8. I'm intrigued by the 'equay/squaw' comment just above. The words come directly from the same root -- like "to flame" and "to inflame" in English, which mean exactly the same thing. It seems a little silly to say that the first is wholly honorable and the second is wholly bad when they're basically the same word (only the one mispronounced by the typical American).

    What I intended to say, however, was this: Members of the Nations in the West have never used Ojibwe words for anything else, so why should they use squaw to refer to themselves? It'd be like a French woman calling herself "eine Frau" or "una dama" instead of a "Madame." It's not wrong so much as it's strange.

    Similarly, I don't think that the Western Nations have much business telling the Eastern tribes (including mine, although we weren't raised in it) what _we_ are allowed to call ourselves. I think this issue should be decided by those of us who belong to (what's left of) this language group. I don't think that (for example) the Navajo or Costanoan peoples should have the final say on this issue any more than I would expect, say, Hawai'ian or Inuit people to be allowed to define my language. It's not their word.

  9. I learn something new everyday...I am proud of that.

  10. Um, well I know 2 sisters who are from a Tribal Nation that is an Algonquin language speaking Nation and they both have Squaw in their first names. It's not my language so I'm not going to tell them or any Algonquin speaking people that they can't use that word. I think it's odd to do that. Get a grip people.