Lisa Mitten (

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



"Squaw Debate"


Lyn Dearborn (

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.


The End.





"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" |


Re: "Squaw Debate"


John E. Koontz (

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

ahą (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 ahi (s^ahi)used of various Algonquian groups.


John Koontz (




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 <>

Subj: Charwood-Litzau responds to Associated Press article


Mailing List: Minnesota Indian Affairs <>





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.

Muriel Charwood-Litzau

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 <>

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.