Reclaiming the Word "Squaw"
in the Name of the Ancestors

copyright by Marge 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 remove the word "squaw" from the English language.

Squaw means the totality of being female

Squaw is NOT an English word. It IS a phoenetic rendering of an Algonkian word that does NOT translate to "a woman's private parts." The word "squaw" - as "esqua," "squa," "skwa," "skwe" and 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 such as "squaw vine" and "squaw root," among many others. There are rumors about the word's usage as an insult by French fur traders 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 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 has been 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 a wrong translation. We must stop now and educate, rather than tolerate the loss of our language due to ignorance.

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" (IAAW )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."

It is my firm belief that the only way to stop people from continuing to use this word as an insult, is to educate them regarding its actual meaning and context, and whenever it is used inappropriately, to take that as yet another opportunity to educate. No, I don't think people should indiscriminately call women "squaw," but attacking the word only replaces insult with ignorance. We are smarter than that, and if more people still spoke indigenous languages, there would be greater understanding of indigenous words. No matter how the word is spelled, it sounds essentially the same - the spelling variances came from outsiders transcribing an oral tradition into a written language. If the word ending "-skwa" caused no shame to our female ancestors who spoke the language before contact, are we smarter than them when we now say it's an insulting sound? Do we change the sounds of our traditional songs because they sound awkward to our modern ears, or because some stupid European mocked us for singing them?

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, Massachusetts, recalling a local Wampanoag woman, and many "Squaw Rock" locations remembering female chiefs. Many "squaw" place names recognize ancient places where women did traditional activities. Without a very good understanding of history, it is a mistake to erase the 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.

A more useful resolution of place names issues would 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? One way is to reclaim the original language. "Squaw Peak" might become "Ktsioskwa," "great woman," or another appropriate name chosen by the indigenous 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, our women, and our history, be treated with respect.

Thank you for listening.

Wlibomkanni, travel well.

Marge Bruchac comments on the controversy that has arisen since her original editorial was published:

Explaining my writings re: the "squaw" issue

By way of explanation to readers, I wish to clarify my stance on the controversies regarding the use of the word "squaw." I have NEVER supported continued use of the word as a pejorative insult directed at Native women, and I am NOT opposed to the concept of changing place names.

What I have tried to do, is to provide background documentation and explanation of 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 have asked that people try to understand, and respect, the difference between insulting uses and indigenous contexts, and between different indigenous languages, both past and present. I have also asked that people not promote fictional word origins that insult our ancestors, elders, and the many people who still speak Algonkian languages that contain some form of the word, or morpheme root of a word, commonly spelled as "squaw."

And yet, I have been repeatedly misquoted, misunderstood, insulted, defamed, and physically threatened by people who see my name associated with the word "squaw" and assume I am their enemy. I have received astonishingly vivid insults and physical threats, from people who refused to believe that "squaw" could have originated in an Algonkian language, or that it could ever have had any meaning but a pejorative one. Many people 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. It is even more absurd, in retrospect, to realize that some writers have been willing to hurl far worse threats than "squaw" at me, simply because I chose to investigate the history behind the problem, and the process by which the insulting meaning has come to predominate. One writer declared that from now on she would call me "Vagina" instead of "Marge," and suggested I have "squaw" branded on my forehead. And this was only the mildest of insults, compared to the profanity and physical threats I received. If we are trying to end the use of "squaw" as an insult, why must we insult each other with it?

For most of the historic era, "squaw" was a simple, non-pejorative descriptive word, a classic example of the same Pidgin speech that gave us "powwow," "tipi" and "mocassin" as generic terms, universally applied to all Native American peoples. It was widely used by both Native and non-Native speakers, and its non-pejorative meaning is amply documented in literally thousands of American and English documents and dictionaries, and both oral and written records of Algonkian languages, spanning the time from the 1620s to the pre-1970s. (When time permits, I will post some transcriptions for reference.)

Yet, in the modern era, given the tragic history of non-Native treatment of Native American Indian women, the word "squaw" is often interpreted as an insult. For some, it represents the rape and abuse of Native women by white soldiers and fur traders; for others, it represents the prejudice experienced by reservation Indians. That being said, there is no need to rewrite or reframe the history of America to imply that every instance of its use was pejorative.

If our goal is to enforce respect for Native Nations, we need to honestly discuss how and why these issues come to the fore. During my research into this issue, I have come to understand how deep the divisions can be between eastern and western, reservation and urban, traditional and modern, and recognized and non-recognized Native Nations, not to mention the racial tensions between Native and non-Native, and the differences between historical and modern applications of Native words.

Rather than twist history by insisting that the word has always been an insult, we need to understand how indigenous cultures, histories, and languages have been misrepresented. And we need to support, not modern misuse, but appropriate indigenous use, of Native names, symbols, languages, history and culture. Personally, I feel we would do best to argue for revision of "squaw" 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 for Native women.

So how we can use the current controversy to further public understanding of how the colonial process, and the appropriation of things Native, has affected Native peoples? When we choose to change "squaw" place names, we can claim the opportunity to recover original indigenous place names, reinforce respect for local indigenous histories, and support Native language reclamation efforts. Out of respect, we can cease using "squaw" as a generic term for Native women, just as we can cease using "brave" as a generic term for Native men. We can educate the general public to understand the marvellous diversity of our histories, languages, homelands and cultures, instead of stereotyping all Indians as western Plains warriors in feather headdresses.

It is my fervent hope that our dialogues about the details of history will result in better understanding, and respect for, the diversity of Native Nations, the diversity of responses to the colonial invasion, and the diversity of processes for recovering indigenous histories, rather than further insult.

Wlioni, Marge

29 March 2001