Is “squaw” an obscene insult?

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Dear Cecil: Here in Maine, the state legislature is taking up a bill to ban the use of the word squaw in place names. Native Americans contend that it is a vulgarity, meaning prostitute or c*** rather than woman. Was this a general word that was used in many languages, or was it specific to one or two? Are there any old Native American songs or poems that might use this word in a more ordinary sense, revealing that it is not as degrading as they might contend, or is it absent from N.A. literature, indicating that it is indeed vulgar? If it is found in the literature, are other “vulgar” words used as well? Paul Mattor, Hollis, Maine


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Let’s cut the pretense of scholarship, Paul. What you really want to know is, DOES SQUAW MEAN C***, OR WHAT?

Answer: No. I’m not saying it’s not an insult. It’s just not an obscene insult.

The idea that squaw means vagina (to use the polite term) first found its way into print in a polemical 1973 book, Literature of the American Indian, by Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek. Sanders and Peek, without offering evidence, advanced the theory that squaw derived from the Mohawk word ojiskwa’ (sources vary on spelling), meaning vagina. This notion appealed to a certain mind-set and was circulated widely in the activist community. In 1992 it was revealed to the world at large on Oprah by Native American spokesperson Suzan Harjo: “The word squaw is an Algonquin [sic] Indian word meaning vagina, and that’ll give you an idea of what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again.” This marked the beginning of organized efforts to remove the word squaw from place names, a campaign that continues today, so far with mixed success.

Hey, free country. Except that squaw doesn’t mean vagina. “It is as certain as any historical fact can be that the word squaw that the English settlers in Massachusetts used for ‘Indian woman’ in the early 1600s was adopted by them from the word squa that their Massachusett-speaking neighbors used in their own language to mean ‘female, younger woman,’ and not from Mohawk ojiskwa’, ‘vagina,’ which has the wrong shape [sound], the wrong meaning, and was used by people with whom they then had no contact. The resemblance that might be perceived between squaw and the last syllable of the Mohawk word is coincidental.” This comes to us from Ives Goddard, a specialist in linguistics and curator at the Smithsonian Institution, writing in News From Indian Country, mid-April 1997.

Massachusett (no s), one of the Algonquian family of languages, was spoken by Native Americans in eastern Massachusetts. As is common with “first contact” languages, Massachusett and its Algonquian cousins contributed many terms, including papoose, sachem, skunk, opossum, and raccoon, that thereafter became standard English words, even in parts of North America where Algonquian languages weren’t spoken. The first recorded use of squaw in English dates from 1622, and it had been adopted into the language by 1634. The Mohawks were 200 miles away, spoke a completely different language (Mohawk is part of the Iroquoian family of languages, not Algonquian, Harjo’s statement notwithstanding), and were hostile to the Massachusett Indians.

Having deep-sixed … hmm, not the best choice of terms. Having dispatched the squaw = c*** angle, let’s turn to the more general issue: is squaw considered an insult by Native American women? Lots of them sure think it is, although to what extent that’s due to misinformation about the term’s origin is debatable. “Documented uses of the word squaw in clearly derogatory senses are in fact hard to find,” writes University of Colorado linguistics expert William Bright in a forthcoming article. One early example: “the crafty ‘squaw’ … the squalid and withered person of this hag,” from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. (Squaw, squalid — you can see a problem right there.) On the other hand, tribes such as the Navajo use terms like squaw dance to this day.

One doesn’t want to get overly PC about it, but the protesters have a point when they say special terms for minority women are inherently demeaning. Think about it. Negress. Jewess. Sixty years ago these terms were in common use. Now they make your flesh creep. Next picture some pot-bellied slob in a cowboy hat: “Why, if it ain’t a injun and his squaw.” In 1967, 143 place names containing the word nigger were changed to Negro by order of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Squaw Valley may not be in the same league as Nigger Lake on the offensiveness scale. But it’s up there with Pickaninny Creek.

Cecil Adams

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