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This tobacco card from 1910 has a caption that reads "Squaw Fleshing a Robe."

The Word ‘Squaw’: Offensive or Not?

Vincent Schilling
1/31/14

The word squaw certainly has had its share of history. In researching its meaning, squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman. According to which historian you speak to on any given day or which link you click in a Google search, there are several theories regarding the word’s origin. Most notably negative and perhaps the most feared definition of the word is that squaw translates to vagina.

According to Dr. Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki historical consultant, Squaw means the totality of being female and the Algonquin version of the word “esqua,” “squa” “skwa” does not translate to a woman’s female anatomy.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the term as “often offensive: an American Indian woman” and “usually disparaging: woman, wife.”

A fruit crate label for Squaw Peas. (AuthenticHistory.com)

The Urban Dictionary paints a different picture. It says the word squaw “DOES NOT mean vagina, or any other body part for that matter. The word comes from the Massachusett (no S) Algonquian tribe and means: female, young woman. The word squaw is not related to the Mohawk word ‘ojiskwa’: which does mean vagina. There is absolutely no derogatory meaning in the word ‘squaw.’ ‘Squaw’ has been a familiar word in American literature and language since the 16th century and has been generally understood to mean an Indian woman, or wife.”

In her article “Reclaiming the word ‘Squaw’ in the Name of the Ancestors,” Dr. Bruchac wrote the following excerpt about the meaning of squaw.

“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’.”

“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,” wrote Bruchac.

There is no mistaking the strength in passion against the word. For several years after the article, Bruchac received death threats for her stance.

The first recorded version of squaw was found in a book called Mourt’s Relation: A Journey of the Pilgrims at Plymouth written in 1622. The term was not used in a derogatory fashion but spoke of the “squa sachim or Massachusets Queen” in the September 20, 1621 journal entry.

Though the earliest historical references support a non-offensive slant on the meaning of squaw and support Bruchac’s claims, there are also several literary and historical instances of squaw being used in a derogatory or sexually connotative way.

According to some proponents on the inflammatory side of the words meaning, squaw could just as easily have come from the Mohawk word ojiskwa’ which translates politely to vagina.

In the 1892 book An Algonquin Maiden by Canadian writer Pauline Johnson, whose father was a Mohawk Chief, the word squaw indicates a sexual meaning.

“Poor little Wanda! not only is she non-descript and ill-starred, but as usual the authors take away her love, her life, and last and most terrible of all, reputation; for they permit a crowd of men-friends of the hero to call her a ‘squaw’ and neither hero nor authors deny that she is a squaw. It is almost too sad when so much prejudice exists against the Indians, that any one should write up an Indian heroine with such glaring accusations against her virtue…”

Loretta Lynn had an album titled "Your Squaw Is On the Warpath."

In a 1973 book, Literature of the American Indian, authors Sanders and Peek straightforwardly asserted the term squaw “exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa, meaning female sexual parts…”

Of all the support for the negative, the word squaw got its highest claim to defame when Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee American Indian rights activist appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and said on-air that squaw was an Algonquin word meaning vagina and that the word squaw was viewed by many Native people as the “S-word.”

Though several journalists since have supported Harjo, the jury is still out when it comes to the meaning of the word squaw. Most historians and linguists appear to be more supportive of a non-derogatory meaning, use of the word is still looked at as offensive to many others.

In the years since Harjo’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, efforts to rename geographical sites swung into full-force. In the first four months of 2008, the U.S. Board on Geographic names renamed 16 valleys creeks and other sites omitting the name squaw.

The most high profile case at that time sought by the National Congress of American Indians was the renaming of the Phoenix hiking spot Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak. The peak was renamed to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi/Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

Piestewa Peak was renamed from Squaw Peak to honor Lori Piestewa. (Aznaturalist/Wikimedia Commons)

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Comments

hopj@yahoo.com's picture
hopj@yahoo.com
Submitted by hopj@yahoo.com on
That is fine if the people of where this word originated from use this word - Squaw. I would completely understand. But you can not use it as a generic word to cover all Native American women. I would never use or refer to the women in my Family with this word. We use that Walla Walla language and there is no such word as this in our language.

Ann Hunter
Ann Hunter
Submitted by Ann Hunter on
The word "Black" is not offensive to African American people. The n-word is, even though it appears to be derived from the Spanish or French word for "black." The point is how people feel about a word now more than how it has been used historically. No one should have to prove that something hurts them.

Diana's picture
Diana
Submitted by Diana on
From a written, white, historical perspective I have to agree with Dr. Marge Bruchac's interpretation. The vulgar interpretation based on the Mohawk language assumes that a Puritan writer in 1621 even had access to a Mohawk speaker (unlikely). By the timeline alone, it is much more likely the word is a white derivation of a Massachusett word which in 1621 the writer would certainly have access to. However, even assuming the word is a white derivation of a Massachusett word, the fundamental flaw is that once again the white world is using a word from one language and people and ascribing it to all Native peoples. If Natives are drawn into the argument about whether it is or is not a derogatory word, they miss the point that the word has no relevance to say a Lakota woman, or any other woman except a Massachusett. They further the white goal of assimilation by buying into an argument at all that is based on pan-indianism. If someone is trying to describe a German woman they would not use the words femme (Fr), mujer (Sp) or donna (It). They would say frau. Dr. Bruchac is quoted as saying, “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.” I respectfully suggest that "language" should be "languages", and there is the challenge to the Native community; to take back all of their languages in their beautiful diversity and poetry.

cpata's picture
cpata
Submitted by cpata on
I do remember in elementary school learning the term "squaw" for Indian women, and thinking how odd it was because I had never heard any of my elders use that term for women of our tribe. Being from Northern California, the literature we had to read on the Gold Rush was littered with the word "squaw." I'm thankful that I now know about the origin of that term. I'll definitely begin educating people that the term "squaw" only refers to females of Algonkian speaking peoples. Hīcalābēm - Many thanks

indianmedicine's picture
indianmedicine
Submitted by indianmedicine on
“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,” wrote Bruchac. .........................."I Concur & with Diana's Summary...................... ................................................................................................................................ Also as surfaced, "The "N" (Nigger) Word", which was / is applied by "ignorant people" that all "Blacks" are from "Nigeria"; and we all know that the African Continent has many Nation's and Cultures" within; just as The American Continents do............ ............................................................................................................................... I suggest that the "emotional" arguments giving any type credit to "verbal insults" as a valid "Word" in any language be examined for what it is - ignorant application of a language not known to the user............................................................................. ............................................................................................................................... In Summary : Instead of "sniveling" about the bad manners of another - educate our young in "How To Use A Language To Convey An Idea To Another".................... ............................................................................................................................... POINT MADE: hopi - generic all purpose definition .......Diana - Language Use ..... cpata - education enlightenment .............................................................................. .................................................................................................................................. Thank you Folks for clear & plain dialog about others ignorance, and accepting Conventional Wisdom for compounded errors in Language Use over time v.s. Just Plain Bad Manners as a Human Being...................................................................... ..................................................................................................................................
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