Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors

Reposted from Marge Bruchac, Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors, H-Net Online, December 1, 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 remove the word "squaw" from the English language.

Squaw is NOT an English word. It IS a phonetic rendering of an Algonkian
word that does NOT translate to “a woman’s private parts.” The word “squaw,”
as “esqua,” “squa,” “skwa,” “skwe” or other variants, traditionally means
the totality of being female, not just the female anatomy. The word has been
interpreted by modern activists as a slanderous assault against Native
American women. But traditional Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and
English, still say words like “nidobaskwa” =  a female friend,
“manigebeskwa” = woman of the woods, or “Squaw Sachem” =  female chief. When
Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address “nuncksquassis,” “little
woman baby.”

During the contact period, northeastern American Indian people taught the
colonists the word “squaw,” and whites incorporated it into their speech.
English observers described women’s medicinal plants as “squaw vine” and
“squaw root,” among many others. There are rumors about the word’s usage by
the fur trade era French, among western tribes who were not Algonkian
speakers. But the insult was in the usage, not in the original word.

Any word can hurt when used as a weapon. Banning the word will not erase the
past, and will only give the oppressors the power to define our language.
What words will be next? Pappoose? Sachem? Pow Wow? If we accept the
slander, and internalize the insult, we discredit our female ancestors who
felt no shame at hearing the word spoken. To ban indigenous words
discriminates against Native people and their languages. Are we to be
condemned to speaking only the “King's English?” What about all the words
from other Native American languages?

Let me tell you a story. 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 words, we and our grandchildren are in grave danger of losing our
self-respect. That school is now being taught that squaw is NOT a dirty
word, but an indigenous term that used to be misused and misunderstood, and
that it is an appropriate, traditional, and honorable part of this girl's name.

Some American Indian activists have written to me saying, “well, YOU can use
the word if you want, but WE consider it obscene.” This labeling of my
indigenous language as obscene is a racist statement. It makes no sense for
Native people to cling to, and accept, the wrong translation. We must stop,
now, and educate, rather than tolerate the loss of our language due to

Historical Background

Before the arrival of the colonists, the word “squaw” was not an insult.
When Roger Williams spoke with the Narragansett people in 1643, he was
informed that “squaw” meant “woman,” “squawsuck” = “women,” “squashim” = “a
female animal,” “keegsquaw” = “a young virgin or maid” and “segousquaw” = “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.

Even Indian people speaking English chose to say “squaw” rather than
“woman.” Susanna Johnson, an English captive in 1754, wrote: “. . . my new
sisters and brothers treated me with the same attention they did their
natural kindred,” giving her a horse, “for squaw to ride,” and teaching 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.”)

I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but
I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be
taken over.  To borrow an old proverb, “let's not throw out the baby with
the bathwater.” If the “water”  - the meaning of the word in some minds - is
dirty, let us work together to make it clean again, instead of throwing out
the word. There are times and places where it is necessary to distinguish a
woman from a man, and English is problematic as well, since “man” is the
root form and “woman” a modifier. But I identify myself as a “woman” despite
the fact that even that word has been slanderously used by those who think
that women are less intelligent, strong, or capable than men.

We can do what the “Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women” in
Edmonton, Alberta has done with the term “esquao,” the northern linguistic
equivalent of “squaw” - they have declared that it will no longer be
tolerated as an insult, but will instead be recognized as a term of honor
and respect. 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.”

Place Names

Where the words “Indian” or “chief” or “squaw” have been used in place
names, they usually reference some memorable person or event, without a
negative reference implied (unless the event was a massacre of white
settlers). Thus we have “Indian Island” where the Penobscot people live,
“Squaw Betty,” in Bristol County, MA, recalling a local Wampanoag woman, and
many “Squaw Rock”s remembering female chiefs. Many “squaw” place names
recognized ancient places where women did traditional activities. Without a
very good understanding of history, it is a mistake to erase the lives,
stories, and voices of the women whose presence was acknowledged by the
original naming.

As a traditionalist and historian, I am deeply suspicious of how modern
political attitudes are often applied to the past without careful
consideration of origins. Hitler effectively slandered one of the oldest and
most universal sacred symbols, the world wheel or “swastika,” by
appropriating it for his own purposes. Native American people who dare to
use this traditional symbol today are scorned by the ill-informed. We, as
indigenous peoples, must not let other cultures, even other “Native
American” cultures, define, and defile, our languages and symbols. I even
hesitate to use the term “Native American,” since it implies that we are
Native citizens of a colonialist power that conquered and divided the
original nations in this continent (none of whom were “American”), but
that's another discussion.

The issue of Indian mascots and appropriate usage of Indian statues, images,
words, names, etc. in non-Indian communities is far more complex than some
activists wish to believe. Racist intent may be the case where the images
are used to consciously erase, defame, misrepresent or overly romanticize.
But in many regions, the use of Indian images and place names supports the
historic presence of local tribal nations, many of whom have yet to be
recognized by the federal government. Many New England Indians celebrate
historically accurate statues and monuments and place names. That doesn't,
however,  mean they want to see a warrior with a western Plains headdress on
the floor of the school gymnasium.

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. The real issue for American Indian people today, across America, is
not just words and mascots, but the forging of new relationships based on
mutual respect and understanding, in traditional homelands, beyond the
stereotypes. And the more pressing issues, of adequate food, housing,
shelter, and opportunity, will not be served by attacking traditional
languages in the name of political correctness.

As for the place names issue, a more useful resolution might be one that
acknowledges and enforces respect for indigenous peoples and languages.
Before we erase names, we must erase misunderstandings. How do we rename
every "Squaw Rock," without forgetting the history? We can reclaim the
original language. "Squaw Peak" might become "Ktsioskwa," "great woman," or
another appropriate name chosen by the Wabanaki people.  Indigenous people
must  publicly declare that we will no longer allow our words, names, skin
color, beliefs, etc. to be used against us. Whenever the word “squaw” is
used as an insult, my response is: "I do not accept that definition. Among
my people, WOMEN are honored and respected. The sound "squaw," regardless of
its spelling,  is OUR word for woman, and it is NOT to be used as an insult!
When I hear it spoken by Native peoples, in its proper context, I hear the
voices of the ancestors.  I am reminded of powerful grandmothers who
nurtured our people and 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, and our women, and
our history, be treated with respect.”

Thank you for listening.

Wlibomkanni, travel well,

Marge Bruchac