The “Squaw” Word

by sageandhoney

This is a project I worked on for class. I needed a way to publish the article online for access reasons so I chose my blog as that forum.

The “Squaw” Word

By: Amy Harris

 The Lions, the Bears and the Indians all have historical significance in the mascot world. But what if it was the Dogs, the Jews and the Asians? Or the Whities, the Blacks and the Seawolves? Years of misrepresentation via the media, history books and story telling have shaped stereotypes and ideas of Native Americans. It’s hard to see the use of native symbols and people as mascots or the use of specific native words as offensive when Native American culture is characterized as a cute, cartoon-like remembrance of a vanished people.

Until the 1970s Stanford’s mascot was the Indian. Scott Slovic, a professor of Native American Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the mascot basically called natives animals. “You had the Lions, the Bears and the Indians. This doesn’t seem quite right,” Slovic said. “You really classify a group of people as animals.” The use of Native American symbols by mainstream America doesn’t end with headdress wearing college mascots.

The warrior mascot is a simplified and romanticized remembrance of the stereotyped noble savage Indian. This reimagining of native people also extends to language. The word squaw was redefined by white settlers who took it from its eastern Algonquin roots as a word that originally meant female, and used it as a derogatory word used to insult native women.

This specific word, with non-pejorative roots, has received increased scrutiny for its offensive use and meaning created by settlers. For years activists have fought to remove the word “squaw” from place names in America. Marybeth Nevins, an anthropology professor at UNR, said the settlers meaning has replaced the original meaning of the word. “Squaw is an Algonquin term,” Nevins said. “But the predominate meaning is the settlers meaning, it is pejorative as its been used in the settlers context.”

In an article in USA Today, a council member with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, Montana and Washington, Valerie Fast Horse, said squaw is an insulting term for female genitalia used to describe loose or shameful women. Many states, including Maine and Arizona, passed laws requiring replacement names for places with offensive titles. Lynda Shoshone, who works in the Washo language department, also finds the word offensive. “I personally do not like the word,” Shoshone said. “If anyone called me that they would be in a heap of trouble.”

The problem with the word squaw is in the way it’s used, or has been used historically. Marg Bruchac from the University of Connecticut writes extensively on the controversy surrounding the word. In an essay she wrote in 1999 she said “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.” Bruchac argues that the original meaning of the word should be reclaimed instead of erasing it. “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.”

Bruchac received so many threats after writing this piece that she wrote another essay addressing those who sent her hate mail and threats of physical abuse. In her response she advocated for the same reclamation of squaw’s original meaning. She said the controversy over the word served as an opportunity to educate people about the colonial appropriation of native symbols and language. Instead of eradicating the word, she promotes recovering native place names. “We can educate the general public to understand the marvelous diversity of our histories, languages, homelands and cultures,” she wrote. “Instead of stereotyping all Indians as western plains warriors in feather headdresses.”

The controversy over the word within the native community makes it hard to navigate a solution to the many place names in America that still include the word. One local example is Squaw Valley. The famous ski resort held the 1960s Olympics and is hoping to bid for the 2022 Olympics. Squaw Valley is globally recognized and privately owned and can therefore call itself whatever it wants, and as Slovic said, “The Olympics already happened at Squaw Valley, so I doubt they’d change the name because of political correctness.”

But the word squaw itself is geographically inappropriate in California. “It’s an eastern word that was never a word for California tribes,” Slovic said. “The geographical association of a word is also a form of inaccuracy.” The important questions to ask, Slovic said, are what did the people who were in that place call it? How did the name come about and what did it replace? And most importantly, how do people native to this area feel about the word?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. Shoshone’s reaction represents a negative association with the word from the Washo tribe. “If I was called a squaw it would be fighting words,” Shoshone said. “This was the white mans term for us and they didn’t consider us as anything much better than dogs.” She reiterated that it’s in the way the word is used that makes it offensive. “I could call you an angel and make you feel like I’m saying something nasty to you,” she said. “It is in the way white people interpret the word, it’s generally known that you don’t call a woman a squaw.”

During the late 1990s and early 2000s Shoshone said the Washo tribe discussed changing the name of Squaw Valley. Thy chose the name Ta’mo’mo, which is the Washo word for woman. Since then the discussion lost steam as leaders changed and other issues took precedence. And so the valley remains Squaw Valley. White Settlers brought the word squaw from the east and noticed that many native women lived in the valley (the men were traditionally engaged in hunting in the high passes). The name came from settlers literal expression of what they saw in the area: a valley full of native women, or Squaw Valley.

The traditional name of the valley is hard to find. In Louis Owens’ book Mixedblood Messages he said he didn’t know the native name for Squaw Valley, but the traditional word for Lake Tahoe roughly translated into, “the life sustaining water, the center of the world.” He said the traditional Washo name for Squaw Valley “would have called up particular values and stories for those who uttered it: stories of hunting, camping, exciting trading journeys, stories involving grandfathers and grandmothers, stories of love and, undoubtedly, warfare.”

Owens clearly shows that the renaming of a place and the redefining of a word not only replaces native names but also native stories. The chapter in Owens’ book that includes a discussion of Squaw Valley is really about the power of words. “Traditional Native American stories tell us that words are powerful and sacred, that words bring into being and compel and order the world,” he wrote. “Words are powerful creators, and they can be powerful destroyers.”

Controversy surrounds the word squaw and the most important voices on this issue are native voices, Nevins said. The issue with the word squaw is not just its derogatory use by settlers, but also its replacement of traditional native names. Replacing the name of a place symbolizes a reclaiming of culture and history. Bruchac suggests not only redefining the word squaw, but also remembering the historical, native names for places.

Ta’mo’mo wasn’t the traditional name of Squaw Valley, but the name connects the valley to the people who occupied the area for thousands of years before settlers claimed the land. “Squaw” tells the story of misplacement and white settlement while Ta’mo’mo tells the story of the Washo tribe and its women. Changing the name of Squaw Valley doesn’t dominate Washo tribe discourse these days, but Shoshone would still like to see the word squaw disappear from place names. “Get rid of the name,” she said. “Native women would be glad to see it replaced.”