Manataka American Indian Council

Proudly Presents




By Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Northampton, Massachusetts (November, 1999)

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.

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

Georgia Southern University Jun 30, 2001





By Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Northampton, Massachusetts (November, 1999)

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.

Georgia Southern University Sep 30, 2001



EMAIL          HOME          INDEX          TRADING POST