Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Reclaiming "Squaw" - part 2

The following is from The Cherokee Voice, Statesboro: Sep 30, 2001.Vol.28 pg. 11:


Copyright Georgia Southern University Sep 30, 2001

The misuse of "squaw" was further spread by early 20th century movies and children's books that depicted stereotypes and savage Indians. Many Native American women have now internalized the racism to such a degree that simply hearing the syllable uttered brings a sense of shame.

But simply banning a hurtful indigenous word will not erase the problem. Imagine, for example, that "-winpe" a word from one of the western tribes, was carried back east, where it suddenly took on a slang meaning. Would we allow that slang to override all other uses? Would we punish the speakers of that language by banning the use of their word in contexts where it might be misunderstood?

A good friend, a revered New England Algonkian elder, gave her granddaughter a traditional name that ended in "-skwa" meaning "Powerful little woman." That poor girl came home from school in tears one day, asking, "Why did you name me such a horrible name? All my teachers told me it's a dirty word." When our languages are perceived as dirty word." When our languages are perceived as dirty words, we and our grandchildren are in grave danger of losing our self-respect. We must educate, rather than tolerate the loss of our language due to ignorance. If the word ending "-skwa" cause no shame to our female ancestors who spoke the language before contact, are we smarter than they were to substitute the colonizer's definition for our own? Do we change the sounds of our traditional songs because some stupid European mocked us for singing them? Any word can hurt when used as a weapon. Banning the word will not erase the past, and will only give the oppressors power to define our language. What words will be next? Papoose? Sachem? Powwow? Are we to be condemned to speaking only the "King's English?"

It's all too easy to forget that America's original indigenous peoples are still living in a state of colonization. Indigenous lands, resources, food, and even culture and language are no longer under the exclusive control of tribal peoples - but are subject to the politics, and the whims, of the dominant American culture and white cultural norms. In the nineteenth century, many Native peoples were forced to hide their identity, or move onto reservations in order to survive. In boarding schools, traditional languages and culture were beaten out of children in the effort to "Kill the Indian, save the man." By the early 20th century, in communities across America, identification as an "Indian" exposed Native people to taunts, prejudice, and physical danger. Many of us have forgotten our tribal languages. Modern Native communities are also suffering from dangerous levels of stress, diabetes, alcoholism, malnutrition, lack of jobs and education, and domestic violence-all the direct results of colonization.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of white people - Boy Scouts, school sports teams, and fraternal organizations like "Order of the Red Men" - started adopting Indian personas and costume, and mimicking, or mocking, sacred rituals. Once Native people were no longer seen as a real threat to white colonization, white Americans started using them as romantic images to conjure up the primitive past. Town histories began to be written as sagas of peaceful colonists in conflict with savage Indians.

The Problem of Place Names

Every river, mountain, valley, and plain, every plant and every animal, every living being on this continent was known to the original inhabitants. Some place names like Quinneticook, were anglicized (Connecticut), while others remained intact, like Quinnebaug. Still others were removed from the map in favor of colonial claims like New France, New England, or New York.

Where the words "Indian" or "chief" or "squaw" were originally used the place names, they often referenced some memorable person or event. Thus we have "Indian Island" where the Penobscot people live, and many "Squaw Rock" locations remembering female chiefs or traditional stories. Some "squaw" place names recognized ancient places where women carried on traditional activities, or indicated rocks or mountains that took on womanly forms. Yet others arose, somewhat humorously, from non-Native speakers' attempts to phonetically render Native words that had nothing to do with women: "Squaw Betty," in Bristol County, Massachusetts, emerged from the Wampanoag word Squabitty, and "Squaw Tit" was a phonetic rendering of the name of the Cowichan sub-tribe on the Fraser River. Historically, in many cases, local Indians provided these place names to white settlers.

But the word "squaw" is no longer a neutral descriptive term in modern America, and most Americans cannot tell the difference between a historical fact and a modern insult. The problem is compounded by the use of Native place names for commercial ventures - like Squaw Valley Resort, or other modern businesses - that represent the taking of tribal lands of white recreation. The solution of simply changing place names, however, carries with it the potential for erasing regional Native history. Names like Big Squaw and Little Squaw Mountain, or the many Squaw Rocks, stand as silent markers of Native American women's places and histories that have been forgotten by Native and non-Native alike. If the real goal is a preserve that history, then the solution is easy - encourage the local Native Nations to rename these places in their original languages, rather than use an English rendition of a controversial word.

Respect for Tradition, Respect for History

So how do we navigate these treacherous waters? How do "we" restore respect, and sovereignty to Native peoples who are colonized subjects in their own homelands? How do we recover language, culture and history, in the midst of so much confusion and loss? Here are my simple views.

The real problem lies not in the original Algonkian Word, "squaw", but in the treatment of Native peoples who have become the object of ridicule in their own homelands. The solution does not lie in banning indigenous languages, but in banning misuse and appropriation of Native cultural property. Recovering an accurate understanding of Native culture and history requires "respect" - respect for the ancestors, respect for the present, and respect for the future generations. We must also make public the real history of New England's Native homelands, and culture and relationships to place, the Euro-American invasions and disrupted those relationships, and hard work of recovering sovereignty.

We can do what the "Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW) in Edmonton, Alberta, has done with the term "esquao", the northern linguistic equivalent of "squaw"- they have declared that it will not longer be tolerated as an insult, but will instead be recognized as a term of honor and respect, when used by Native women. Their manifesto states in part: From the colonists inability to pronounce the word Esquao, the word 'squaw' came to be a derogatory term. IAAW is claiming back the term for all Aboriginal Women to stand proud when we hear Esquao applied to us."

We, as indigenous people, must not let other cultures, define, and abuse, our history, languages and symbols.

The northeastern Algonkian peoples held back the tide of colonization for 400 years, fighting, adapting, and negotiating treaties in order to stay in our traditional territories. We shared our culture, foodways, stories, and languages to such a degree that much of what we think of as quintessentially "Yankee" today is in fact "Indian." Our complicated history included efforts to teach the newcomers respect while defending our land, families, and culture. Perhaps we should never have aided the newcomers - but generosity, tolerance, and the respect for difference were traditional values among all the Algonkian peoples. The real issue for American Indian people today, across America, is the desperate need for new relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, recovery of our cultures and traditions, and regional sovereignty in traditional homelands.

Personally, I feel we would do best to argue for revision of place names in the name of historical accuracy, tribal sovereignty, and basic respect, since "squaw" is neither historically nor linguistically appropriate as a universal term to apply to Native women. In the modern era, given the sad history of non-Native treatment of Nativewomen, the word is too easily misunderstood. We can replace "Squaw" place names with names in our original languages that preserve the history, rather than whitewash that history with yet more English versions of Indian words. We can argue to eliminate insulting place names, and we can also work to end racism and racially-motivated attacks on Native peoples. But we do not need to insult the languages of our indigenous ancestors to do so.

We can also use this opportunity to further public understanding of how the colonial process that affected Native peoples. We can claim the opportunity to recover original indigenous place names, reinforce respect for local indigenous histories, and support Native language reclamation efforts.

When I hear all the words of our old languages spoken by Native peoples, in their proper contexts, I hear the voices of the ancestors. I am reminded of powerful grandmothers who nurtured our people, of the women who fed the strangers, of proud women chiefs who stood up against them, and of mothers and daughters and sisters who still stand here today. In their honor I demand that our language, our women, and our history, be treated with respect.

Thank you for listening. Wlibomkanni, travel well.


  1. While I must concur the originations of the word squaw are indeed a natural part of the originating language, it does not apply to all nations. The word is now commonly known as a demeaning one.

    It would be wonderful if we were all able to use all parts of our languages without corruption. I am sure there isn't an indigent nation among us that isn't tired of hearing "How" in the best deep, somber voice that the greeter can achieve.

    I think it would also be wonderful if we could all be addressed by our nations, rather than the generic term, Native American, or Indian. That day is a long way off - if ever.

    In the meantime, I believe it is best to simply use the appropriate pronounciation of the word and renounce the incorrect one. Neither word exists in my languages. If you were to approach me with the correct word, I would in no way be offended. But I can assure you, that the word squaw, when applied to me, is very disgruntling.

    I stand behind my father's mantra. Educate to Eliminate. It is an ongoing effort, one all should make efforts to do. Even if it is a short sentence that corrects a speaker's pronounciation and misconception of this word.

    Many Blessings,

  2. Snow ~ Thanks for taking the time to comment, last November. I wish more readers were as interactive... Peace, Malcolm

  3. Kwai kwai,

    I know Marge, the author. I agree with her. The suffix -skwa denotes gender. Nothing else. Non-speakers of Algonquin languages can take a hike or promote Esperanto instead of language recovery.

    Eric, an abenakiij├┤id