The word squaw certainly has had its share of history. In researching its meaning, squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman. According to which historian you speak to on any given day or which link you click in a Google search, there are several theories regarding the word’s origin. Most notably negative and perhaps the most feared definition of the word is that squaw translates to vagina.
According to Dr. Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki historical consultant, Squaw means the totality of being female and the Algonquin version of the word “esqua,” “squa” “skwa” does not translate to a woman’s female anatomy.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the term as “often offensive: an American Indian woman” and “usually disparaging: woman, wife.”
The Urban Dictionary paints a different picture. It says the word squaw “DOES NOT mean vagina, or any other body part for that matter. The word comes from the Massachusett (no S) Algonquian tribe and means: female, young woman. The word squaw is not related to the Mohawk word ‘ojiskwa’: which does mean vagina. There is absolutely no derogatory meaning in the word ‘squaw.’ ‘Squaw’ has been a familiar word in American literature and language since the 16th century and has been generally understood to mean an Indian woman, or wife.”
In her article “Reclaiming the word ‘Squaw’ in the Name of the Ancestors,” Dr. Bruchac wrote the following excerpt about the meaning of squaw.
“The word has been interpreted by modern activists as a slanderous assault against Native American women. But traditional Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and English, still say words like ‘nidobaskwa’=a female friend, ‘manigebeskwa’=woman of the woods, or ‘Squaw Sachem’=female chief. When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address ‘nuncksquassis’=‘little woman baby’.”
“I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over,” wrote Bruchac.
There is no mistaking the strength in passion against the word. For several years after the article, Bruchac received death threats for her stance.
The first recorded version of squaw was found in a book called Mourt’s Relation: A Journey of the Pilgrims at Plymouth written in 1622. The term was not used in a derogatory fashion but spoke of the “squa sachim or Massachusets Queen” in the September 20, 1621 journal entry.
Though the earliest historical references support a non-offensive slant on the meaning of squaw and support Bruchac’s claims, there are also several literary and historical instances of squaw being used in a derogatory or sexually connotative way.
According to some proponents on the inflammatory side of the words meaning, squaw could just as easily have come from the Mohawk word ojiskwa’ which translates politely to vagina.
In the 1892 book An Algonquin Maiden by Canadian writer Pauline Johnson, whose father was a Mohawk Chief, the word squaw indicates a sexual meaning.
“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…”
In a 1973 book, Literature of the American Indian, authors Sanders and Peek straightforwardly asserted the term squaw “exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa, meaning female sexual parts…”
Of all the support for the negative, the word squaw got its highest claim to defame when Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee American Indian rights activist appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and said on-air that squaw was an Algonquin word meaning vagina and that the word squaw was viewed by many Native people as the “S-word.”
Though several journalists since have supported Harjo, the jury is still out when it comes to the meaning of the word squaw. Most historians and linguists appear to be more supportive of a non-derogatory meaning, use of the word is still looked at as offensive to many others.
In the years since Harjo’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, efforts to rename geographical sites swung into full-force. In the first four months of 2008, the U.S. Board on Geographic names renamed 16 valleys creeks and other sites omitting the name squaw.
The most high profile case at that time sought by the National Congress of American Indians was the renaming of the Phoenix hiking spot Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak. The peak was renamed to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi/Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.
This story was originally published January 31, 2014.