For Museums, State/National Parks, Heritage Sites, Powwows, Cultural Centers & Schools
The Short of It:
Where We (WIEP) Stand Regarding the S-Word... -
-We do not support the use of the Anglicized term squaw, and do not use it in our interpretive lingo unless prompted to speak specifically on the history of the term with appropriate audiences. -
-We acknowledge the adaptation and evolution of squaw, from early Anglo borrowing of benign Native terms/morphemes, to a weapon of colonial conquest (past and present). -
-We acknowledge the Southern New England Algonquian morpheme squa/sqá/squàws and related spellings/words describing women and girls are localized language terms/traditions, rightfully reclaimed and properly spoken by descendants… all while the term squaw has been applied to most other Indigenous Peoples incorrectly and often with malice (past and present), and has no place outside the languages it was adopted/corrupted from. -
-We acknowledge squaw generally as a sexist and racist term that continues to disrespect, objectify, and hurt Indigenous women and girls today.
The Long Explanation:
The S-Word: Benign Origin, Offensive Reality
Shortly after graduating high school I began working as a museum/historical interpreter in a re-created 17th century Native village, part of an open-air museum whose interpretation timeline spanned 17th through the 19th centuries, with the largest section of the grounds dedicated to canal-era history. From time to time the museum ran special event days and this time it was Brew Fest, when the non-profit that headed the museum grounds invited local breweries to showcase their beverages for visitors to enjoy alongside special entertainment and the usual operating exhibits. These events were family-oriented and rarely had I ever seen overindulgence or misbehavior, but this one time I’ll never forget… A man who likely had his fill, with his family in tow, approached me quickly and excitedly at the entrance of the longhouse village. Before I could even greet him, he dropped his full hand on the top of my head, tightly grasped my scalp, rocked my head quite violently and shouted “What a cute little squaw you are!” I could barely keep my balance and he wasn’t letting go. Paul, my coworker dressed as 17th century Dutchman, intervened throwing his arm over the man’s shoulders, turning him around and diverting his gaze away from me. I was almost too stunned to move though Paul wildly gestured for me to get out of sight. I did and I hid from him until he and his family departed. The whole incident shocked me for more than one reason. His tone, his entitlement to touch me, his grasp rocking my head side-to-side making my whole body feel like a rag doll (at 4’ 10” and 90 lbs, it didn’t take much to overwhelm and control my movement), and all while calling me squaw. It wasn’t the first time I had been called the s-word, and it was far from the last (and full disclosure, I am a white woman), but this time was decisively different... I already understood why this word had no place in our museum language (nor in greater society), but never had it been exemplified so clearly why until then. This man, in one fell swoop, managed to fully demonstrate to me what the s-word represents in its continued use today: disrespect, domination, objectification.
So you might be wondering what makes the word “squaw” so offensive? Is it the origin of the word, or is it the way it was/is used? To be clear, the origin of squaw (entomology) is not inherently negative. Squaw, as we know it, comes from the Anglo adoption of Algonquian morphemes meaning female, woman, young woman, appearing as squa / sqá / squàws from the Native languages of Southern New England.
Though its benevolent entomology is obvious in the meaning of these Algonquian morphemes, some believe squaw is derived from a different origin… a negative origin. First theorized in a 1973 publication, the s-word was claimed to have “probably” been adopted by the French from a Mohawk word otsiskwa or ojiskwa referring to women’s genitalia (1). Though this Iroquoian word is not inherently offensive either, it was the theorized manner in which the French employed the suffix that made it unpalatable. However this claim is not well supported linguistically or by the timeline when compared to an Algonquian origin, and most linguistic experts consider this conclusion unlikely and unsupported. (2) The English had clearly used the Algonquian squa very early on, as early as 1622 appearing as squa sachim defining a female leader. Anglos were first exposed to and adopted squaw from the Native Massachusett Peoples and their neighbors.
So why then is the competing theory so popular? Part of the answer may lie with what the s-word evolved into and the movement to discontinue its use today. While a vulgar origin is a flawed theory, the want to discourage the use of the word is justified. It was and still is the very real abuse of the s-word that renders it truly unpalatable. This of course excludes speakers of Indigenous languages from which squa, sqá, squàws, etc. is appropriate when properly spoken (subject to Algonquian language rules, morphology, syntax, etc.). In this context squa/sqá,/squàws has proper meaning and real value, whereas the term squaw held no real value or emotion in foreign languages (French, English, etc.), and it carried little connection or familiarity for the white settler,… not like squaog had for Massachusett speakers of the 1600’s. For themselves squaog were daughters, sisters and cousins... they were family and community. (3)
Simply put squaw was highjacked, made into a tool of colonial conquest, turned back onto Indigenous Peoples in the form of racially disparaging lingo. Settler lingo was full of language like “the squaws” in lieu of “the women,” and “the Indian and his Squaw” rather than “the man and his wife/companion.” (4) While this may have been in some effort to be specific (ie Native woman vs a non-native woman), the term shared psychological real-estate with Western perspectives on race, including popular theories promoting White superiority and Native inferiority - a campaign that only gained momentum through the Removal Period, solidifying the s-word’s negative connotation that persists to date. Squaw, as it was redefined by outsiders, deprived Native women of humanity equal to European-descended peoples… or deprived some Native women of dignity compared to other Native women of “a better sort.” In fact some historical writings/journals referenced Native and Native-descended women as more or less “squaw” depending on the a writer’s scale of “civility” or “royalty” (Western-defined of course). Thus daughters of mixed European-Native unions may be described as more “squaw” if practicing an Indigenous lifestyle, or daughters of male leaders may be spared the label squaw due to their “royal bloodline” (particularly as Europeans equated chiefs to kings). (5)
And as I have often witnessed, squaw stills fails to convey an equally human experience, particularly for young English speakers. (6) While I have encountered many children familiar with the s-word (having conducted outreach programs for well over 100,000 children in my 20-year career), it was one particular group of students whose zeal for the term truly shocked me. This unforgettable group of elementary students exhibited the unusual habit of “correcting” me whenever I spoke of Native women. When I said (Native) women or mothers, the children couldn’t help but to reply under their breath squaw, or raise their hands and firmly declare “You mean squaw.” After a few times of their insistence I halted the program to address their eagerness. I assured the children my language is quite accurate - that Native women are in fact women. “They are mothers, they are daughters, they are sisters and wives.” I could tell the children had a hard time accepting my explanation… It was clear they could not easily draw comparisons of squaw to the familiar, like mother. Simply put, the children found it hard to see or understand “a squaw” as a person, a human, like their own mothers and sisters. And what caused their insistence to use the s-word?... And why did they find it hard to draw a familiar human connection to squaws? Wanting to know myself I asked a few students where they learned the term and one volunteered to run back to his desk where he retrieved a photocopied article - a reading assignment each child was given by their teachers. It was a highly biased and inappropriate historical account by an Anglo man who referred to Native women exclusively as squaws. Avoidance of the word woman in favor of squaw isn’t inconsequential when it comes to young minds. Squaw cannot be employed innocently, particularly in the classroom… and, in my humble opinion, teachers should avoid the term as they would any racial slur (as well as biased readings lacking Native voices/context or scholarly criticism,… this being the difference between critically understanding history and indoctrination by period propaganda). (7)
Understanding the implications of sanctioning s-word terminology in developing minds could shed light onto why some adults staunchly defend its use (8). What we learn as children is impactful and convincing, and we’re often loyal to these “truths” as we trust our parents, our teachers, our youth leaders who taught us… not to mention that challenging our worldviews (9) with new information or competing perspectives can be very uncomfortable. One might say we have a knee-jerk reaction to defend the “truths” we have come to believe over the years, over the decades. Whether emboldened by miseducation, personal opinions (over facts), or false impressions, it’s not unusual for many to believe the s-word is okay, perhaps even “cute” or “honoring.” I’ve seen my fair share of folks who romanticize the s-word, or superficially defend its continued use mostly as some sort of battle cry against political correctness. One such encounter couldn’t have been more serendipitous, for a timely lesson… - In 2016 I found myself engaged in conversation with a young hobbyist at an Ohio history event. I assume the initial discussion was about cookery and such as I was there conducting a foodways demonstration. He was one in a small audience in front of my cooking fire. While I don’t remember the dish or ingredient or practice we were discussing, I do remember vividly what followed after he used the term “squaw” in front of my visitors. It’s been many years and probably hundreds of discussions regarding the s-word with my visitors, audiences, even co-educators when prompted… I’m not so shocked anymore. I politely informed him that we don’t use that term here, and before I could explain he beat me to it rather accusingly asking “And why not?” I explained to him and to my audience why it is an inappropriate and disparaging term, and as such its use served no benefit to our ongoing conversation about Native foodways. He pushed back: “But that’s what they called Indian women,” referring to the fact that we were at a living history event and the term was used historically (particularly by Euro-Americans). I explained that we are not actually “in history” nor are we on a movie set or giving a dramatic reading, and so this offensive term has no place here at my interpretive site. At this point his father stepped in and took on his son’s fight, vehemently slamming political correctness, and citing how he had once been to [a specific premier living history destination] where, as he claims, their costumed interpreters understand history is history and they’re never offended. He added that the Black actors at [this site] weren’t all "pc" and didn’t mind jokes about “their” enslaved status. It was quite a coincidence he mentioned this site, as I had just returned from this very place (located more than 550 miles away) only three days prior,… and I came back with a decisively different impression, which I proceeded to share with him and others listening. Not visiting as a guest but as a professional hired to work with their Native American staff, my discussions weren’t inhibited by the guest-host relationship. Unfortunately their Black staff do sometimes suffer from visitors making light of, or fun of, their impressions as slaves and servants… the kind in line of visitors giggling while asking “And how much for you?” As I had been informed by a woman of color on their staff (just days previous to this conversation), they don’t appreciate such remarks from visitors. It is rude, insensitive, and offensive. As I continued to explain to the man who was first to reference this site and their "not pc" staff members of color (and I paraphrase): Just because the reenactors you “joked around” with were not confrontational doesn’t mean they didn’t object to your comments,… it just means they’re professionals working in a service-based industry. (This site is very tourism-driven) Sir, I believe you may have confused civility and courtesy for consensus.
More than professionalism can stop folks from voicing their true feelings regarding racially disparaging and misogynistic “jokes” and language, including not wanting to be confrontational, feeling intimidated, fear of retaliation, or even just being too shocked or hurt in the moment to respond. But even so some can and do come forward with words meant to educate, words we can easily access with simple online searches, making it harder for any of us to ignore perspectives of marginalized persons. And while I can talk about my own professional experiences, my personal opinions on this subject are pretty insignificant when compared to those in which the s-word subjugates... colonizes. I can’t speak for because I can’t speak as (again, I am a white woman). Native experiences and opinions are truths, and the following are just a few Native voices regarding the use of the s-word today…
“It is not a linguist’s definition of the original Native word that is of concern. It is the way that the term has been used to define Native women in its current context...It is hard for the general population to imagine how hurtful a word can be unless it is directed at them, their culture or racial background…” -Donald Soctomah, Passamaquoddy https://digitalmaine.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=mitsc_docs
"White folks know this term is offensive and they choose to use it against us because they know it hurts,”… "To me, that definitely points towards it being a power exertion."-Erica Violet Lee, Plains Cree/Nêhiyaw https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/indigenous-women-prairies-slur-1.6056222?fbclid=IwAR3ZPSN9tNqb5ycqAFwWQMFGIo95D1hEN2CV-GbL3gG7QdQ8JjNTDPvogIg -
“As a Cree child, I heard this demeaning slur directed toward my mother by both white people and other native people, both men and women. The word had at this time had become internalized by native men and women who felt it acceptable to call a native woman down using this term, and not because it meant "woman" either, but because it meant "whore" or when a white person used it, "a dirty Indian whore" — or some other demeaning intent.” -Kevin Ward, Mikisew Cree http://www.bluecorncomics.com/squaw.htm -
"Dumb f--king sq—w.”… "If an Indigenous woman rejects you, you get to call her a sq--w. If she pisses you off, you get to call her a sq—w.” -Tala Tootoosis, Plains Cree, Lakota Sioux & Haudenosaunee https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/indigenous-women-prairies-slur-1.6056222?fbclid=IwAR3ZPSN9tNqb5ycqAFwWQMFGIo95D1hEN2CV-GbL3gG7QdQ8JjNTDPvogIg -
“I come from a younger generation, I am only 25, but I have had experiences where this term was used in a hurtful fashion against me. I can recall being encircled by a group of drunken cowboys who poked at me and called me “squaw” in between their sneers and Budweiser gulps. I can only imagine the decades of harm that this word has done before me to those older than I and lived through racism at its heights.” -Helen Knott, Dane Zaa (Beaver), Nehiyaw (Cree) & European Descent https://reclaimthewarrior.com/2013/03/12/i-am-not-your-squaw/ -
"European American men on horseback would chase my grandmother and her friends, calling them the s-word… Their intentions of what they would do had they captured my grandmother and her sisters was clear. They were regularly sexually harassed and terrorized while being called the s-word…” -Roman Rain Tree, Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni People https://www.register-herald.com/cnhi_network/squaw-is-a-slur-to-many-native-americans-they-want-a-fresno-county-town-renamed/article_0bc1f2ca-6fe1-11eb-b8d2-27945ee8242e.html
To summarize: No, the s-word did not come from a vulgar origin, but its long history of use and misuse among European Americans certainly polluted the word. Today squaw is considered by many a sexist jeer and racist slur, still weaponized in subtle microaggressions and egregious name-calling.The s-word’s neutral entomology and benign beginnings is just as factual as its offensiveness today.
To cite this article: Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2021, September). The S-Word: Benign Origin, Offensive Reality. Retrieved from http://www.woodlandindianedu.com/thesword.html
(1) Sanders, Thomas E., and Walter W. Peek. 1973. Literature of the American Indian. p.184.
(2) “A competing claim has been made in recent years, despite the clear evidence that squaw comes from an Algonquian word for "woman,’’…the origin is given as "probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa meaning `female sexual parts’’’… The spelling used is the traditional system used by French Canadian missionaries, but the source of the information is not given.” -Ives Goddard, The True History of the Word Squaw. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/94999/squaw%20article%20on%20web%20page.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y “The word squaw “has nothing to do with any word for the female genitalia, in Mohawk or in any other language.” Instead, squaw originally meant woman and, more specifically, young woman in the Algonquian language of Massachuset in what is now southeastern Massachusetts,…” according to Philip LeSourd, Proposal to Drop "Squaw" from Place Names in Maine: Summary of Issues and Views. 2000. https://digitalmaine.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=mitsc_docs
(3) Though very controversial, there is a small minority that promotes the reclaiming of the term “squaw.” Proponents claim that its related terms/morphemes (especially of New England Algonquian dialects) should never be shunned due to their benevolent traditional meaning (female, woman, young woman). But critics believe that “squaw,” outside a few dialects of Southern New England, is anglicized and can’t be reclaimed. While unadulterated morphemes comprising real words are acceptable and celebrated, but “squaw” and “squaws(pl)” as it appears in its English are not proper Native words. Read a pro-reclamation article here: http://native-way.blogspot.com/2004/11/reclaiming-squaw-part-1.html And a rebuttal here: http://www.bluecorncomics.com/squaw.htm
It’s important to note that reclaiming “squaw” is something that can only be done by members of or allies connected to Native communities whose languages squa, sqá, squàws, and related terminology originated. It is not an excuse for non-native history enthusiasts, reenactors, scout leaders, school teachers and others to casually use (abuse) the term under the supposed guise of empowering/supporting reclaiming the term. For Native Peoples to reclaim and restore the term, non-native persons must first relinquish their hold on it.
(4) “It is noteworthy that the English word "squaw" belongs to a rather special semantic set. It may be significant that the semantic Indian set: "buck," "squaw," "papoose" is unusual among terms for ethnic groups, in that it has separate lexical items to distinguish male, female, and young; this pattern seems to group Indians with animals (e.g., horse: stallion, mare, colt) rather than with other human groups (cf. Italian: Italian man, Italian woman, Italian child).” -William Bright, The Sociolinguistics of the “S-Word:” Squaw in American Placenames. https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/aec/pdfs/TheSociolinguisticsoftheSWordSquawinAmericanPlacenames.pdf
(5) See Grandmother, Daughter, Princess, Squaw: Native American Female Stereotypes in Historical Perspective by Pauleena M. MacDougall at https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1309&context=mainehistoryjournal … Squaw also came to define Native women as slaves or persons living a life of drudgery*… a notion that survived to modern times and media, entertaining and (mis)educating us all. The most famous example (in my opinion) would have to be the Disney score “What Made the Red Man Red” from the 1954 animation Peter Pan. Here Princess Tiger Lily dances to the drumming and singing of the men, but Wendy is stopped by from enjoying the “festivities” and scolded: “Squaw no dance… Squaw get -um/‘em firewood!” After bringing back an armful of firewood, Wendy sees the Native men, lost boys, Peter Pan and Princess Tiger Lily, along with her two brothers all dancing… Her youngest brother dances by her, shoving his teddy bear into Wendy’s hands ordering her: “Squaw take -um/‘em papoose!” And as such (a “squaw”) she is still unable to join the men, boys, and “Indian princess” as she is again ordered to fetch firewood. For young minds watching and listening, the message conveyed is very clear: the “Indian princess” enjoys a favored position that includes leisure and “play” while the squaw is to only concern herself with labor. While an “Indian princess” dances with and to the music the men provide, a squaw must work. (Note: “Squaw” vs. Indian Princess is but only one stereotype depicted in this scene)
It’s worth noting here that the historical narrative of the “squaw drudge” often appears with its other half - the stereotyped slothful Indian man… creating a propaganda to “justify” European/Euro-American actions from stealing land to forced assimilation (mission/residential Indian schools). “To prove “savagism” of the Native Americans, thereby negating their rights to their homelands, English colonists and later Euro-Americans routinely alleged that “abominably slothful” and oppressive aboriginal husbands forced their “poor squaws” to perform the most laborious and fatiguing essential chores.” -David D. Smits ( The “Squaw Drudge,” A Prime Index of Savagism pgs. 27-49, in Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900.) Also see Busting Stereotypes: Native American Women Are More Than Princesses and Squaws at https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/whats-problem-thinking-indian-women-princesses-or-squaws
(6) “Epithets such as squaw, savage, warlike, and drudge are used in reference to Indian men and women of the past, and sometimes to Indians today. However, such words obscure our humanity and prevent those who believe them from knowing us as we really were, and are.” -Joseph Marshall III (Sicangu Lakota), The Dance House: Stories from Rosebud. p.171.
(7) Labeling every Native woman as “squaw” wasn’t the only foul in this reading assignment… It also conveyed the stereotyped “bad Indian” narrative, as in good Indian, bad Indian stereotypes best known in fictional literature and film: “The bad Indian was hostile, savage, vengeful, and immoral… The good Indian was usually friendly to Whites and was willing to share his belongings with the settlers, was a brave warrior, lived with simplicity, and close to nature. Usually, good were those Natives that gave up their culture and identity and became “white.” ( -Charalambos Vrasidas, The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes In Film And Beyond. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED408950.pdf ). To be clear, the reading these students were assigned was not a fictional piece, but the message is the same… this Native group was good, that Native group was bad. While the writer shared his and local Natives’ perspectives, their truths, a history lesson it is not. This account was one-sided, lacking competing perspectives, fair analysis, or critical facts. This particular reading assignment certainly favored a local tribe/Nation while absolutely vilifying another. So egregious was the content of the reading that anytime I referenced this Native community in my presentation, some children literally shrieked. They insisted to me the they were very awful and scary. At this point I had no choice but to pivot my program (which at this time, 2005, I conducted in-school programs as an employee of a small history park in Indiana) to focus more on this vilified Nation’s culture and history than we usually would have. From their government to their agricultural excellence, learning more about their wonderful culture and history left some confused… they only knew them as they were introduced by their enemies. And when I informed these students of the continued presence of the (name withheld) Nation, their people today, they appeared in disbelief, some even frightened… They truly thought this Native community were some sort of boogiemen of the past. Between the s-word and vilifying a whole Native nation, I found myself conducting more of an impromptu reeducation program than the planned/scripted cultural-history lesson relevant to the land/location of the school. Sorry to say my short time with these students was likely not enough to counter the damage this assigned reading inflicted (which was clearly emotionally-driven for the students). I did express to one teacher my disappointment in the reading these children were assigned… It was by far the most outrageous and destructive lesson material provided to young children I have ever encountered. A hideously biased and violent account, such a reading (with more context) would have been appropriate for college level students,… not 9 year-olds.
(8) “The word "squaw" is commonly used in place of the word "woman" in historical fiction for children. I wonder if its entrance during childhood, during formative years, is what makes adults of today think it is an appropriate or acceptable word to use today?” -Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children’s Literature, in The word "squaw" in SIGN OF THE BEAVER. https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2007/10/word-squaw-in-sign-of-beaver.html?fbclid=IwAR29Si4P6gj8_Qg7Uqxh6D-b1Dcwe0AFhvr92y_fhXf7ZHtbLX3ZpgcTuqU
(9) “A worldview is a collection of attitudes, values, stories and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action… We have a natural tendency to think that what we believe is normal…” -Alison J. Gray, Worldviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6735033/
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