Lisa Mitten (email@example.com)
Wed, 24 Feb 1993 10:28:00 EST
I am looking for some information in print on the origins/meaning
of the word "squaw". It has always been my understanding that this term
comes from a word in some Algonquian language that refers to women's sexual
origins, copulation, or whore. Something vulgar, at any rate.
I now have come across a claim that the word is a "transliteration"(!)
of "the Algonquian word 'eshqua', meaning woman or wife. Can anyone
give me some sources for the actual meaning of "squaw", which has
certainly acquired very derogatory connotations whatever its origins are.
Thanks, Lisa Mitten
Lisa A. Mitten 207 Hillman Library
Social Sciences Bibliographer University of Pittsburgh
FAX: 412-648-1245 Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Bitnet: lmitten@pittvms 412-648-7723
Lyn Dearborn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mon, 18 Apr 1994 13:19:17 -0700
Sorry if I'm sending this to the wrong list, but as I recall, it began on
one list and moved to another ... I may be fuzzy on this. Moving right
along, I wrote a well known Linguist, an "acknowledged expert" in the
languages of the Eastern U.S. This was his reply:
This stuff drives us crazy. A simple look in any reputable dictionary
will answer the question. Squaw is from Massachusset (unlike the state the
name of the language has no final "s"). It is the ordinary word for woman
and it comes to mean "Indian woman" in English and the negative connotations
following from that meaning. It isn't Iroquois and it doesn't refer to
genitalia. It made it's way into the regular vocabulary of English in the
early 1800's. It seems to be one of those words for objects in nature
(sorry, but that's the way Indians get classified in the white mind) that
shows up in the names of other objects in nature, squaw bush, squaw huckleberry,
and squaw fish. Such names are rarely classificatory serving more to
differentiate than to describe. Biologists should stick to biology and
leave onomastics to the experts.
"We did not weave the web of life. We | Lyn Dearborn; Naturalist/Person
are merely a strand in it. Whatever | Turtle Clan Ojibwe
we do to the web, we do to ourselves" | email@example.com
Re: "Squaw Debate"
John E. Koontz (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tue, 19 Apr 1994 12:36:14 -0500
It might be worth pointing out, in connection with Lyn Dearborn's posting on
the squaw debate, that American English has a small body of words borrowed
from Massachusset and its near relatives that refer to Native Americans,
Native American institutions and artifacts, native American flora and fauna,
etc. Examples are squaw (i.e., Native American woman), papoose (i.e.,
Native American infant on cradleboard), sachem (Native American authority
figure), wickiup (certain type of Native American dwelling), moccassin
(Native American shoe), pemmican, skunk (and its doublet seacook), opossum,
raccoon, etc. These terms were supplemented with various loans and calques
from French, perhaps reflecting the importance of French as a contact
language, e.g., jerkey (from charcais, itself a loan in French from, I
think ultimately Quechua), chief (chef homme), brave (from brave, i.e., a
bravo), etc., etc.
Once borrowed into English these terms were carried with it across the
continent as settlement (or the invasion) spread. Such terms were probably
generally assumed popularly to be either part of a universally understood
Native American language or even English, and appropriate for discussing
and/or communicating with Native Americans. The demeaning connotations of
such terms stem not from their original senses, but from the cultural
attitudes of the users, as exhibited in the notion that distinct terms for
Native American persons and artifacts with European analogues were
actually needed. Relatively few new terms were borrowed from more Westerly
languages as they were encountered, e.g., tepee from Dakotan, various terms
from Spanish in Texas and the Southwest, etc.
However, there are factors apart from racism at work here. Not only were/are
these special terms for Native Americans and Native American institutions
and artifacts a facet of racist attitudes as used in everyday English, they
were also a part of the contact language or pidgin used in communications
with Native Americans, and presumably originated in it. Of course, the
Algonquian terms were originally useful because they were known to the
Native American participants in the dialogue, but the pidgin became
institutionalized and was then used in areas where it was in some sense
less useful, because the Native Americans of the area didn't speak Algonquian
languages, or spoke Algonquian languages so divergent from the New England
pattern that words from New England languages were unrecognizable.
In such situations the English speakers were either using the pidgin because
its use had become institutionalized, or because they assumed in ignorance
that all Native Americans spoke the same language, perhaps even the pidgin
itself, while the Native Americans were using it because its use was
institutionalized and/or they assumed in ignorance that the words in question
were English. This may strike us as peculiar and perhaps counterproductive,
but it is what happens with pidgins (and with contact situations in
As far as the stigmatic use of these terms in everyday English, I wonder to
what extent this is a relatively late phenomenon, fostered by popular
literature and then Hollywood. I haven't seen or done any real work on this,
but I don't recall that terms of this nature are common in the diaries and
memoirs of early English writers. I think that writers tend to put them in
the mouth of their characters ex post facto to give the text color, just as
someone writing about France might put the occasional French word into the
This experience is analogous with what happened in Australia, where most of
the words in the contact language are from languages spoken near the
original settlements in the south, e.g., gin `Native Australian woman',
kangaroo, etc. Here, too, these words from a few languages near the
original settlements became part of the contact pidgin used across the
continent by both sides of the contact situation, and were also adopted into
use in Australian English for references to native phenomena.
Incidentally, Native American languages also have and use similar
terminologies for Euroamericans and other Native American groups. There
seems to be a universal human tendency to look askance at outsiders. A term
šahą (s^ahaN) in various more southerly Siouan languages for speakers of Dakotan
dialects has also been folk-etymologized as referring to genitalia, but
doesn't actually do so. It's more likely to have something to do with the
term šahi (s^ahi)used of various Algonquian groups.
John Koontz (email@example.com)
The views expressed herein are my own, and do not reflect the views, policy,
or practice of my employers.
--------- "RE: Charwood-Litzau Responds to Article" ---------
Date: Thu, 3 Oct 1996 19:37:47 -0500
From: feather eaglerock <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subj: Charwood-Litzau responds to Associated Press article
Mailing List: Minnesota Indian Affairs <MINN-IND@vm1.spcs.umn.edu>
NEWS RELEASE FROM NORTH CENTRAL MINNESOTA NATIVE AMERICAN VETERANS OUTREACH
AND RESOURCE CENTER
Following is the response by Muriel Charwood-Litzau, Anishinaabe Ojibwe, to
inaccuracies in the Associated Press article about the Minnesota Law to
eliminate the word "squaw" from all geographic locations.
In response to he article "Squaw-ble," that appeared in the September 27,
1996 edition of the Native American Press. I would like to make
correction to the inaccuracies.
The campaign to ban the use of "S" began in 1994 by two teenage girls in
Cass Lake-Bena High School Indian Studies class. (The article states that
I started the campaign and enlisted the help of my daughter and other
student.) These two girls had the initiative, courage and integrity to
stand in front of sub committees of the [Minnesota] House of
Representatives and Senate and the Full House of Representatives and Full
Senate to express their feelings about the use of the derogatory word.
In the article, there were reports that the campaign was stupid according
to some non-Indian people. However, the lawmakers were all non-Indian and
the two girls have received numerous letters of support from non-Indian
people. It would be naive to believe that we would not have opposition
from people whose prejudices are ingrained and rooted deep in the being
against Native American Indian people.
The article states that the interpretation of the word "Squaw" is my
definition. The article from Saxon Gouge St. Germaine which states; "All
my life I have known that the word "squaw" somehow had a negative
connotation and that white men who married Indian women were referred to as
"Squaw men" and was not used in a complimentary way." In the book,
Literature of the American Indian, by Sanders and Peek, page 184, paragraph
3, the following statement reads, "The curious concept of "squaw," the
enslaved, demeaned, voiceless, child bearer, existed only in the mind of
the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois
word otiska meaning female sexual parts, a word almost clinical both
denotatively and connotatively. Another person, former Mohawk chief, Tom
Porter explained the meaning of the word and it was the same meaning as
described as Sanders and Peek. According to the revised and expanded
edition of "The Thesaurus of Slang" by Ester and Albert E. Lewis, p. 311,
the word squaw is used as a synonym for prostitute
In the [Associated Press] article, Ives Goddard, a curator with the
Smithsonian Institute disputed the fact that the term is offensive. He
states that there is a similar word in the Mohawk language which is very
offensive but has nothing to do with the word squaw. However, I spoke with
Tom Porter, who states that in the Mohawk language there is a word for a
female reproductive organ, and that word is ge-squaw and to call a Mohawk
woman a squaw would be very offensive. As a Mohawk male and an elder he is
very supportive of the ban on the use of the "s" word.
There have been several theories of where the word comes from, but
regardless of its origin, the term has taken the meaning of enslaved,
voiceless, fat, ugly, and is demeaning to the Native American Indian woman.
Women in our culture are highly regarded and respected, and the continued
use of the term dishonors our traditions and our culture.
Minnesota has a history of being the first in educational matters and now
Minnesota is the first state to have a law to change the offensive names of
geographic features to a name that is not offensive.
I stand with my daughter Dawn Litzau, and Angelene Losh, as well as our
Name Change Committee, a committee made up of students who are educated and
will to speak out against the derogatory term. The students and I know
when the term is used to describe a Native American Indian woman it is
meant to be a hurtful, pejorative word. The campaign of the students is
not taken lightly, as a whim or sudden enlightenment of the word. We have
known for years the demeaning usage of the "s" word.
Our campaign to educate and to create an awareness has spread throughout
the native and words of encouragement are support are greatly appreciated.
the bravery of the students to speak out against injustices is commendable
and I will continue to support them in any way I can.
Rte. 3, Box 699
Cass Lake, Minnesota 56633
NOTE: Even after the graduation from high school of Dawn Litzau and
Angelene Losh, the Name Change Committee at Cass Lake-Bena High School (a
public school within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation) has
continued to address stereotype issues and local racism. Last year student
members of the committee held at panel discussion with the student body of
the Pequot Lakes High School in northern Minnesota where they discussed
their feelings about stereotypes of Native Americans. As a result of that
effort the Pequot Lakes Student Body voted to change their Indian mascot.
From: Ilona M. Turner <email@example.com>
Subject: definition of "papoose"
Can anyone help me uncover the true definition of the English (via some
North American Indian language) word "papoose"? I've heard two conflicting
versions: 1) a North American Indian infant or young child, and 2) a
wrapping or basket in which a mother carries a child on her back. I've
found literary and pop-culture references supporting both definitions.
So I'd like to ask the members of this list which definition you ascribe
to in your own usage. Also, I'm curious if anyone can tell me the origin of
this word's presence in American English, and if they can explain the
existence of the two definitions (each held as passionately and firmly as
the other by the opposing factions of my non-linguist friends whom I
polled about this matter).
Thanks for any help you can provide.