squaw n : an American Indian woman
Squaw is the phonetic spelling of an eastern Algonquian Indian morpheme, meaning "woman," that appears in numerous Algonquian dialects variously spelled as squa, skwa, esqua, sqeh, skwe, que, kwa, ikwe, etc. As an English language loan-word, used as a noun or adjective, its present meaning is a native-American woman of North America, regardless of tribe.
Algonquian language origins
One of its earliest appearances in print refers to "the squa sachim, or Massachusets queen" in Mourt's Relation (1622), one of the first chronicles of the Plymouth colony (Goddard 1997). William Wood similarly defined "Squaw - a woman" in his list, "A Small Nomenclature of the Indian Language," in New England's Prospect (Wood 1637). Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, in his book A Key Into the Language of America, published several words that exemplify the use of this morpheme in the Narragansett language:
- "Squàws – woman, Squàwsuck – women, Squásese – A little Girle, Sauncksquûaog – Queenes, Keegsquaw – A Virgin or Maide, Segousquaw – A Widdow" (Williams 1643).
The Saint Francis Abenaki Chief Joseph Laurent (1884) illustrated the neutral usage of the term among Abenaki speakers to refer to both Native and non-Native women. As a suffix it means "wife", as in "Sôgmò; —skua", translated as "A chief; chief's wife." Other examples are
- "Nôkskuasis – A young little girl. Patlihóskua – A nun. Kinjamesiskua – A queen. Awanochwi-skuaso – The queen [cards]. Kuibekiskua – A lady (woman) from Quebec. Pastoniskua – An American woman. Iglismôniskua – An English woman. Illôdaskua – An Irish woman."
In 1940, the anthropologist Frank Speck noted the appearance of this morpheme in various terms in the Penobscot language, including the following.
- nȣkskwe'sis = girl, nȣkskwe = young woman, na'kskwe'si'zak = a call for women to come and dance, Mi'kmaskwe'sis = a little Micmac woman, agwuskwe'zun = women's head coverings, gwanuskwa'kwsȣsak = long, peaked hood-like caps so characteristic of the northern peoples (Speck 1940).
Frederick Webb Hodge from the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology, in his Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (1910), noted the widespread usage of this term across the region:
- As a term for woman squaw has been carried over the length and breadth of the United States and in Canada, and is even in use by Indians on the reservations of the W., who have taken it from the whites (Hodge 1910).
The adjective form of squaw has been widely applied to indigenous plants used by Native peoples for medicinal properties that are specific to female complaints. The Oxford English Dictionary notes:
- In names of plants, as squaw-berry, the edible berry of one of several shrubs, esp. the bear-berry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, an evergreen prostate creeper; squaw corn, a variety of maize having soft grains of various colours; squaw huckleberry, -root, -weed, whortleberry (see quots.). Also squaw-bush, -carpet, -flower, -grass, -mint, -vine (OED 1989).
- After the squaw have been named: Squawberry (the partridge berry), squaw bush (in various parts of the country, Cornus stolonifera, C. sericea, and C. canadensis) ... squaw flower (Trillium erectum, also called squaw root) ... squaw mint (the American pennyroyal), squawroot (in different parts of the country, Trillium erectum, the black and the blue cohosh, Conopholis americana, and other plants) ... squaw vine (a New England name for the partridge berry) (Hodge 1910).
In general, from the 1600s to the 1800s, Euro-American settlers learned to use squaw, one of the many loan words adopted from Native American languages, as a generic term to identify American Indian women. Although there is obvious evidence that some colonists hated Indians (whom they insultingly depicted as "primitive savages"), and that some colonial men demeaned women of all colors, the term had, in the past, no universal derogatory sexual connotation.
Early derogatory usesMany present-day Native Americans find this term to be extremely offensive, partly but not entirely due to claims that it comes from a word for the vagina. (The Algonquian term for "female (reproductive) organs" does contain the "squa" morpheme, however.)
Derogatory connotations and folk etymologies for the origins of the word "squaw" seem to have emerged during the 1800s, when incidents of rape, torture, and other violence against Native women were increasing dramatically during the Indian Wars on the western plains, and when Algonquian loan words, garbled in the mouths of hostile white settlers, were being transported to western Native tribes who spoke different languages. Some of these tribes used the loanword squaw in reference to women of other (hostile or enemy) tribes.
Some derogatory connotations for squaw that are not explicitly sexual can be found in various 19th- and 20th-century texts. One author, for example, described the "universal" Indian squaw as "squat, angular, pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect-haunted" (Steele 1883). Squaw also became a derogatory adjective used against some men, in "squaw man," meaning either "an Indian who does woman's work" or "a white man married to an Indian woman and living with her people" (Hodge 1910). (This was a popular literary stereotype – see "The Squaw Man".) Some authors, such as Jonathan Periam describing American Indian corn-growing practices of the early 19th century in Illinois, used the word repeatedly, and nonchalantly.
An early-20th-century dictionary of American usage called squaw "a contemptuous term" (Crowell 1928). When Isaac Asimov (1950) needed a slur that science-fictional natives of other planets would use against natives of Earth, he looked to this word:
- "Lieutenant Claudy… said harshly, 'Your name, Earthie-squaw?'
- "The term itself was richly insulting…"
Claims of obscene meaningDuring the 1970s, some American Indian activists objected to the term, and a number of false etymologies emerged, apparently arising from the assumption that European settlers had always regarded Native women as easy sexual partners, and that, therefore, the word "squaw" must have been equivalent with the English word "vagina." The earliest known such objection is from Sanders and Peek (1973):
- "That curious concept of 'squaw', the enslaved, demeaned, voiceless childbearer, existed and exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa [also spelled ojiskwa] meaning 'female sexual parts', a word almost clinical both denotatively and connotatively. The corruption suggests nothing about the Native American's attitude toward women; it does indicate the wasichu's [white man's] view of Native American women in particular if not all women in general."
The controversy increased when Oprah Winfrey invited the Native American activist Suzan Harjo onto her show in 1992. Harjo claimed on the show that "squaw is an Algonquin Indian word meaning vagina". As a result of these claims, some Native people have taken to spelling the word sq***, or calling it the "s-word" (Bright n.d.). This etymology has been widely adopted as the rationale for removing the word from maps, road signs, history books, and other public uses (Adams 2000).
However, according to Ives Goddard, the curator and senior linguist in the anthropology department of the Smithsonian Institution, this statement is not true (Bright n. d.; Goddard 1997). The word was borrowed as early as 1621 from the Massachusett word squa (Cutler 1994; Goddard 1996, 1997), one of many variants of the Proto-Algonquian *eθkwe·wa (Goddard 1997); in those languages it meant simply "young woman". Although Algonquian linguists and historians (e.g. Goddard 1997, Bruchac 1999) have rejected Harjo's proposed etymology, the incorrect definition has been repeated by several journalists (e.g. Oprah Winfrey).
Goddard also writes:
- "I have no doubt that some speakers of Mohawk sincerely believe that it is from their word ojískwa 'vagina' (though I know that other Mohawks laugh at the whole idea), but the resemblance (if there is one) is entirely accidental. 'Vagina' was not a meaning that was ever known to the original users of the word, and although it appears in a college anthology published in 1973 (Random House, 2000), it was not widely known before Suzan Harjo's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1992."
Some anecdotal evidence has also been found by Mohawk linguists that suggests that "otsikwa" may actually be a modern slang term for "cornmeal mush" (referred to by Palmer 2001).
Current statusApart from the linguistic debate, the word "squaw" has become offensive to many modern Native Americans because of usage that demeans Native women, ranging from condescending images (e.g., picture postcards depicting "Indian squaw and papoose") to racialized epithets (Green 1975). It is similar in tone to the words "Negress" and "Jewess," (Adams 2000) which treat ethnic women as if they were second-class citizens or exotic objects.
Some Native women have attempted to address this problem by calling attention to what they consider the appropriate indigenous context of this word (Bruchac 1999, Palmer 2001). During a featured panel discussion titled "Squaw: Algonkian Linguistics and Colonial Politics" at the "All Women of Red Nations" Women's Studies Conference at Southern Connecticut State University in 2001, Native women from the Abenaki, Schaghticoke, and Wampanoag tribes stressed the need for accurate understandings of colonial histories, and respect for linguistic differences, to avoid misrepresenting and disrespecting Algonquian language recovery efforts (Bruchac, Fermino, and Richmond 2001).
The term has long been used by some western tribes such as the Navajo/Dine, who practice a ceremonial "squaw dance." Some Native women have noted, however, that it seems inappropriate to use eastern Algonquian words to describe Native women of western tribes (Bruchac 1999, Mihuesah 2003).
Other Native people would like to see the word eliminated altogether regardless of its Algonquian origins and etymology (Bright n.d.; Mihuesah 2003). This desire has inspired a number of local initiatives to change the hundreds of placenames across America that contain "squaw." In 2000, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and Maine State Legislature collaborated to pass a law eliminating the words "squaw" and "squa" from all of the state's waterways, islands, and mountains. Some of those sites have been renamed "moose;" others, in a nod to Wabanaki language-recovery efforts, are now being given new place-appropriate names in the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy languages (Carrier 2000). In 2003, Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Arizona, was renamed Piestewa Peak to honor the Iraq War casualty Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat for the U.S. In October 2006, members of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Tribe called for the removal of the word "squaw" from the names of 13 locations in Idaho, with many tribal members reportedly believing the "woman's genitals" etymology (Hagengruber, 2006). Also, the American Ornithologists' Union changed the official American English name of the duck Clangula hyemalis from "Oldsquaw" to the long-standing British name "Long-tailed Duck", because of wildlife biologists' concerns about cooperation with Native Americans involved in conservation efforts, and for standardization (American Ornithologists' Union, 2000).
Reflecting efforts to be more culturally sensitive and politically correct, several dictionaries now warn that squaw is frequently considered (NSOED), can be (Merriam-Webster), or is (American Heritage) offensive.
- Adams, Cecil. 2000. Is "squaw" an obscene insult?
- American Heritage Dictionary on line. "Squaw". Retrieved March 1, 2007.
- American Ornithologists' Union. 2000. Forty-second supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 117:847–858.
- Asimov, Isaac. 1950. Pebble in the Sky, Chapter 9. Doubleday.
- Barwood, Francis Emma. 2003. Letter to Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Bright, William. N. d. "The Sociolinguistics of the 'S- Word': 'Squaw' in American Placenames." .doc, HTML. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Bruchac, Marge. 1999. "Reclaiming the Word "Squaw" in the Name of the Ancestors". Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Bruchac, Marge (Abenaki), with Jessie Little Doe Fermino (Wampanoag) and Trudie Lamb Richmond (Schaghticoke). 2001. "Squaw: Algonkian Linguistics and Colonial Politics," featured panel discussion at the "All Women of Red Nations" Women’s Studies Conference at Southeastern University, New Haven, CT.
- Carrier, Paul. June 27, 2000. renaming may have exception. Portland Press Herald.]
- Cutler, Charles L. 1994. O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2655-8
- Goddard, Ives. 1997. "The True History of the Word Squaw" (PDF). Revised version of a letter printed in Indian Country News, mid April, 1997, p. 17A.
- Green, Rayna. 1975. "The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture." Massachusetts Review 16:698-714.
- Hagengruber, James. 2006. "Tribe wants 'squaw' off map". SpokesmanReview.Com (Idaho), Oct. 6, 2006. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Hodge, Frederick Webb. 1910. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 30. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
- Hoxie, Frederick E. 1996. Encyclopedia of North American Indians, p. 603. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-66921-9.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. [http://184.108.40.206/dictionary/squaw "Squaw"]. Retrieved March 1, 2007.
- Laurent, Chief Joseph. 1884. New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. Quebec, Leger Brousseau. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007. http://books.google.com/books?id=18iXQFP4pFUC&dq=%22joseph+laurent%22+abenaki&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=iAHuEhPCom&sig=KSDi_AGHtvXK1-9ldq7Vo7YThJA.
- Masta, Henry Lorne. 1932. Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar and Place Names. Odanak, P.Q., Canada.
- Mihesuah, Devon Abbott. 2003. Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism. University of Nebraska Press.
- New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. "Squaw".
- Palmer, Selma. 2001. "Reclaiming 'Squaw' in the Name of the Ancestors". See also Manataka Smoke Signal, Oct. 2006. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
- Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary. 20 volumes. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Partridge, Eric. 1958. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Reprint by Greenwich House, 1966. ISBN 0-517-41425-2
- Random House. Nov. 2, 2000. The Maven's Word of the Day.
- Sanders, Thomas E., and Walter W. Peek. 1973. Literature of the American Indian, page 184. Glencoe Press.
- Speck, Frank G. 1940. "Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Steele, James W. 1883. Frontier Army Sketches, page 84. Chicago: Jansen McClurg. Quoted by Bright.
- Weseen, Maurice H. 1928. Crowell's Dictionary of English Grammar and Handbook of American Usage'', page 603. New York: Crowell. Quoted by Bright.
squaw in Danish: Squaw
squaw in German: Squaw
squaw in Italian: Squaw
squaw in Swedish: Squaw
Eve, Frau, better half, common-law wife, concubine, dame, daughter of Eve, distaff, domina, donna, dowager, feme, feme covert, femme, frow, gentlewoman, girl, goodwife, goody, helpmate, helpmeet, lady, lass, married woman, matron, milady, old lady, old woman, rib, vrouw, wahine, weaker vessel, wedded wife, wife, woman