American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Squaw, Debates over Place Names

Controversy swirls around the use of the word "squaw" to name places in the United States. Many Americans defend the practice as means of acknowledging, if not honoring, indigenous peoples. In recent years, American Indians, energized by a cultural and political renaissance, have challenged these interpretations, asserting that "squaw" is a derogatory term and that its use as a place name harms Native peoples and communities.

Language and Power

"Squaw" entered European languages by the middle of the sixteenth century. Two competing theories describe the origins of the word. The first explanation, preferred by many linguists, anthropologists, and etymologists, traces the term to an abbreviation of the Narraganset word, eskwa, meaning woman. It was not initially a derogatory or offensive term. In fact, several Native languages contain related words. A second interpretation, favored by activists and political leaders, asserts that "squaw" actually has more vulgar roots and consequently always has carried negative connotations. This account has proposed that French trappers borrowed the Mohawk word for female genitals, ge-squaw, to refer to Native women and their sexuality.

Whatever its origins, a constellation of largely pejorative meanings has clustered around "squaw" in English. It has crystallized as a trope of extraordinary power and influence in American culture. The "squaw" of songs, stories, jokes, literature, and film, according to Rayna Green (1990), has been "the darker twin" of the Indian princess: "Squaws share the same vices attributed to Indian men—drunkenness, stupidity, thievery, venality of every kind." They have been sexualized, doing "what White men want for money and lust," not love. And at the same time, expressive culture has often portrayed the squaw as a drudge, an ugly, fat, overburdened, and dependent creature, passively completing chores while her "buck" idles. In popular usage the term has come to be used for a woman or, more generally, a wife. One might hear a man say, "This is my squaw . . ." or "How's the squaw?" Even more generally, it has been employed to describe an effeminate object or action as well as a weak person. More troubling, squaw has long carried sexual connotations. The term not only has often sexualized Native American women, glossing them as prostitutes, it has also described female sexuality more generally, as in World War II, when American soldiers used "squaw" to refer to an ugly prostitute. Today, according to Bea Medicine (quoted in King, 2003), squaw remains "a very derogatory term for Indian women. It equates them with sexuality and perpetuates the stereotype that Indian women are loose and promiscuous."

"Squaw" is not just a hurtful term; it has encouraged violence against American Indian women as well. The most disturbing instances include racist epithets shouted at indigenous women ("dirty squaw") or displayed on placards opposing the exercise of treaty rights ("Save a walleye, spear a pregnant squaw!"), sexual jokes told among friends about the supposed proclivities of indigenous women, and the use of the term in sexual and physical assaults.

Naming and Claiming Places

Euro-American observers have long read landscape and nature more generally in gendered terms, interpreting the virginal, uncultivated, and supposedly unoccupied land as feminine. Frequently, the accounts of Euro-American explorers, soldiers, administrators, settlers, and tourists extend this tradition to indigenous femininity through which they secured a unique metaphorical hold over, or purchase of, the land. The use of "squaw" in place names conforms to this pattern. And yet "squaw" inscribes more than femininity onto the landscape, projecting the inferiority read into the indigenous cultures as well as the presumed rights of the Euro-American colonizers. In naming the landscape, they set about claiming it, simultaneously foregrounding an element of American Indian life even as they erased indigenous histories and removed Native nations.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising how popular "squaw" has proven to be as a place name. Nine hundred thirty-eight geographic features in thirty-eight states bear the name "squaw." In contrast, only a handful of places bear the less exotic gender markers: only 179 features bear the name "lady" and sixteen the name "woman."

Importantly, the pervasive presence of the place name veils significant variation. Despite its origins in the Native languages spoken in the northeastern United States, it is much more common in the American West. And while bays, buttes, canyons, flats, hills, hollows, lakes, ledges, passes, and peaks have been paired with squaw, to fashion place from space, more creeks are so named than any other geographic feature. In addition to these seemingly innocent names, more overtly disturbing place names include Squaw Humper Creek (South Dakota), Squaw Teats (Montana and Wyoming), and Squaw Tit (Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada).

The Controversy

The contemporary movement to change place names bearing "squaw" began in Minnesota in 1994. After learning of the historical origins of the word, two Ojibwa adolescents, Angela Losh and Dawn Litzau, sought to remove the word from geographic features in the state. They recognized the word as an embarrassing and painful insult, best replaced in official inscriptions with words from local indigenous languages like Ojibwa. After much public debate and legislative hearings, Losh and Litzau succeeded in passing a law banning the word.

Building on this momentum, in 1996, a grass-roots movement began in Arizona to change place names in the state. To achieve this end, a group of adolescent indigenous women, led by Delena Waddle (then a sophomore at Mesa High School), founded the American Indian Movement Youth Organization. As in Minnesota, pain, humiliation, and terror inspired Waddle. Although the young women encouraged a local church to change its name and provoked intense public debate, they did not achieve their objectives.

An unwillingness or inability to recognize the equality, autonomy, and dignity of indigenous peoples frustrated their efforts as they have those of state representative Jack Jackson, a Navajo (Dine), who has labored for the better part of a decade to change place names in Arizona. More recently, both Montana and Maine have passed legislation to remove "squaw" from places and features. Whereas in Montana, House Bill 412 passed with little debate or opposition, greater controversy accompanied the ultimately successful efforts of Passamaquoddy Representative Donald Soctomah in Maine.

Not all American Indians have supported efforts to erase "squaw" from the map. In fact, some see in "squaw" a strong validation of themselves as indigenous peoples. On reservations across the country, one can find cars bearing bumper stickers proclaiming "Squaw Power." More central to the controversy over the place name, some American Indians, especially in recent debates in Maine, have suggested that "squaw" or some variation of it is an element of many Native languages. Moreover, the presence of "squaw" on the map reflects indigenous occupation of an area, while preserving the prominence of Native nations within local histories. To remove it is to remove American Indians once more, enacting a kind of symbolic violence against them and their heritage. A better strategy, they contend, is to keep "squaw" as a place name and to educate Americans about what it really means, challenging their stereotypes about indigenous women and their communities. In some areas, "squaw" has been replaced with Native names in indigenous languages for places that once bore the name "squaw."

For their part, most Americans do not understand how seemingly innocent symbols have become controversial. They balk at the idea of changing names, because too often they fail to grasp the offensiveness of the term or appreciate its history. When American Indians object to the continued use of "squaw," many Euro-Americans have reacted negatively, even hostilely. They are likely to see it as trivial or even pointless. Consequently, "squaw" has provoked a charged backlash that simultaneously questions indigenous critics and their motives, while strongly defending traditional American values and identity.

The controversy over the use of "squaw" to name places is emblematic of the political and cultural resurgence of Native America. It is a forceful reminder of a long history of mistreatment of American Indians, particularly indigenous women, in the United States. It gives powerful testimony to a refusal to be named in the language of the colonizer and an insistence to have Native nations recognized as important participants in American society. Despite much progress over the past half century, as long as Euro-Americans continue to misappropriate and misunderstand indigenous peoples, place names and other symbols will be contentious.

C. Richard King


Further Reading
Bright, William. 2000. "The Sociolinguistics of the 'S-Word': Squaw in American Placenames." Names 48: 207–216.; Cutler, Charles L. 1994. "Renaming a Continent." In O Brave New Words! Native American Loan Words in Current English, 67–78. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Goddard, Ives. 1997. "Since the Word Squaw Continues to Be of Interest." News from Indian Country, Mid-April: 19A.; Green, Rayna. 1990. "The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture." In Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History. Edited by Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz, 15–21. New York:Routledge.; King, C. Richard. 2003. "De/Scribing Squ*w: Indigenous Women and Imperial Idioms in the United States." American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 27, no. 2: 1–16.
 

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