Friday, December 29, 2006

The Word "Squaw" Is Not a Derisive Term for the Vagina

It's widely believed that "squaw" is a crude word for the vagina. Whether people under this
misapprehension believe that the word is Native American (specifically from the Mohawk
language) or was made up by Europeans, they think that calling a woman "squaw" is the same as
calling her "cunt." Activists are on a crusade to stamp out the word, which is part of over 1,000
placenames in the United States, and they've met with some success. A 1995 Minnesota law, for
example, ordered the changing of all geographical names containing the misunderstood word.
William Bright— UCLA professor emeritus of linguistics and anthropology, and editor of the
book Native American Placenames of the United States — writes:
All linguists who have commented on the word "squaw," including specialists on Indian
languages and on the history of American vocabulary, agree that it is not from Mohawk, or
any other Iroquoian language. Rather, the word was borrowed as early as 1624 from
Massachusett, the language of Aigonquians in the area we now call Massachusetts; in that
language it meant simply "young woman."
Several languages of the Algonquian family — including Cree, Objibwa, and Fox — still use
similar words for "woman."
The confusion might have come from the fact that the Mohawk word for a woman's naughty bits
is "otsiskwa." But since Mohawk belongs to a different language family (Iroquois), the
etym-ologies of the words are completely separate. Bright notes that current speakers of Mohawk
don't consider "squaw" in any way related to their word for vagina.

Still, there is no doubt that "squaw" has been used as an epithet by white people, starting at least
in the 1800s. It even appears this way in the work of James Fenimore Cooper. However, given its
meaning of "woman," when used in a mean-spirited way, it's probably more equivalent to
"broad" or "bitch" than to "cunt." Even this is a corruption of the word's true definition.
The many places across the US with names incorporating "squaw" were labeled that way to
honor female chiefs or other outstanding Native women, or because women performed
traditional activities at these locations. In an essay that earned her death threats, Abenaki
storyteller and historical consultant Marge Bruchac wrote:
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. What words will be next?
Pappoose? Sachem? Pow Wow? If we accept the slander, and internalize the insult, we
discredit our female ancestors who felt no shame at hearing the word spoken. To ban
indigenous words discriminates against Native people and their languages. Are we to be
condemned to speaking only the "King's English?" What about all the words from other
Native American languages?....
When I hear it ["squaw"] spoken by Native peoples, in its proper context, I hear the voices
of the ancestors. I am reminded of powerful grandmothers who nurtured our people and
fed the strangers, of proud women chiefs who stood up against them, and of mothers and
daughters and sisters who still stand here today.

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