Squaw is an English languageloan-word, used as a noun or adjective, whose present meaning is an indigenous woman of North America. It is derived from the eastern Algonquianmorpheme meaning 'woman' that appears in numerous Algonquian languages variously spelled squa, skwa, esqua, sqeh, skwe, que, kwa, ikwe, exkwew, xkwe, etc. At present, the term is often held to be offensive.
One of its earliest appearances in print is "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 (1643), 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.
Algonquian linguists and historians have confirmed that the term appears in almost all of the Algonquian languages, through such examples as "Narragansett squaw, probably with an abbreviation of eskwaw, cognate with the Delaware (Lenape) ochqueu, the Chippewa ikwe, the Cree iskwew, etc." (Hodge 1910).
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.
The Abenakis' word for a queen, "Kinjamesiskua," recorded as "Kinjames'isqua" by another Abenaki author (Masta 1932), literally translates as "King James' wife."
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).
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. 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.
The adjective form of squaw has been widely applied to indigenous plants used by Native peoples as medicine 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).
The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico lists several such plants that are still prized by both traditional herbalists and modern pharmaceutical companies.
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 17th to the 19th century, 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, at that time, no universal derogatory connotation, sexual or not.
Early derogatory uses
In some 19th- and 20th-century texts squaw is used or perceived as derogatory. Most of these uses are not sexual. One author, for example, referred to "the universal 'squaw' - 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 "a man who does woman's work" (similar to other languages) or "a white man married to an Indian woman and living with her people" (Hodge 1910). (This was a popular literary stereotype, as in The Squaw Man.)
"We tried to find out what the children found painful about school [causing a very high dropout rate]. (...) The children said that they felt humiliated almost every day by teachers calling them "squaws" and using all those other old horrible terms" (Harris 2000).
In this case the term seems to have been regularly applied to girls in the lower grades of the elementary school, long before their puberty.
Claims of obscene meaning
Some but not all Native American condemnation of "squaw" results from claims that it comes from a word for the vagina.
An early comment in which "squaw" appears to have a sexual meaning is from the Canadian writer Pauline Johnson (1892), whose father was a Mohawk chief. She wrote about the title character in An Algonquin Maiden by G. Mercer Adam and A. Ethelwyn Wetherald:
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, and no contradictory statements from either writer, hero or circumstance.
Explicit statements that "squaw" came from a word meaning "female genitals" gained currency in the 1970s. Perhaps the first example was in 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 said 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 purported 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, it 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."
Goddard does not rule out the possibility that the false etymology could have been believed by some non-Mohawks and thus does not rebut statements by Native people who trace the etymology to local memories of insulting language (e.g., Hagengruber 2006).
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).
Apart 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 (Palmer 2001) and proposing to reclaim it as "appropriate, traditional, and honorable" (Bruchac 1999). 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 (or 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).
Reflecting efforts to be more culturally sensitive, several dictionaries now warn that squaw is frequently considered to be, can be, or is offensive (NSOED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, respectively).
Renaming placenames and terms with squaw in them
Other Native people would like to see the word eliminated altogether regardless of its Algonquian origins and etymology. This desire has inspired a number of local initiatives, many controversial, to change the hundreds of placenames across America that contain squaw.
In 1999, the Montana Legislature created an advisory group to replace the word squaw in local place names and required any replacement of a sign to bear the new name
In 2000, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the Maine 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 with the word moose; others, in a nod to Wabanaki language-recovery efforts, are now being given new place-appropriate names in the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy languages.
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.
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.
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.