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The English word squaw is an ethnic and sexual slur,[1][2][3] historically used for Indigenous North American women.[4] Contemporary use of the term, especially by non-Natives, is considered offensive, derogatory, misogynist and racist.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

The English word is not used among Native American, First Nations, Inuit, or Métis peoples.[1][2][3][4] While a similar morpheme (smallest linguistic unit of meaning) is found within some longer words in some of the Eastern Algonquian languages,[7] these languages only make up a small minority of the languages spoken in the hundreds of Indigenous communities affected by this slur.[8] Even in Algonquian, the related word-fragments used are not the English-language slur, but small components of longer, Algonquian words that contain more than one morpheme.[7] Eastern Algonquian morphemes meaning 'woman', which are found as components in other words and may have been transcribed into English include the Massachusett language squa,[9][8] skwa, esqua, sqeh, skwe", "que, kwa, ikwe, exkwew, xkwe'', and a number of other variants.[7]

Current status[edit]

The term squaw is considered universally offensive by Indigenous groups in America due to its use for hundreds of years in a derogatory context,[2] and due to usage that they state demeans Native American women, ranging from condescending images (e.g., picture postcards depicting "Indian squaw and papoose") to racialized epithets.[10][11] Alma Garcia has written, "It treats non-white women as if they were second-class citizens or exotic objects."[10]

While some have studied the smaller fragments of Algonquian words that might be related to the word, no matter the linguistic origins, many Native women feel that any "reclamation" efforts would only apply to the small percentage of Native women from the Algonquian-language groups, and not to the vast majority of Native women who feel degraded by the term.[3][8] Indigenous women who have addressed the history and depth of this slur state that this degrading usage is now too long, and too painful, for it to ever take on a positive meaning among Indigenous women or Indigenous communities as a whole.[1][4][3] In 2015, Jodi Lynn Maracle (Mohawk) and Agnes Williams (Seneca) petitioned the Buffalo Common Council, to change the name of "Squaw Island" to Deyowenoguhdoh.[4] Seneca Nation President Maurice John Sr., and Chief G. Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River wrote letters petitioning for the name change as well, with Chief Hill writing,

The continued use and acceptance of the word 'Squaw' only perpetuates the idea that indigenous women and culture can be deemed as impure, sexually perverse barbaric and dirty ... Please do eliminate the slur 'Squaw' from your community.[4]

Anti-racist groups have also worked to educate about, and encourage the elimination of, the slur. When asked why "it never used to bother Indian women to be called squaw," and "why now?" an American Indian Movement group responded:

Were American Indian women or people ever asked? Have you ever asked an American Indian woman, man, or child how they feel about [the "s" word]? (... it has always been used to insult American Indian women.) Through communication and education American Indian people have come to understand the derogatory meaning of the word. American Indian women claim the right to define ourselves as women and we reject the offensive term squaw.

— from the web page of the American Indian Movement, Southern California Chapter[3]

Newer editions of dictionaries such as American Heritage, Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary now list "squaw" as "offensive", "often offensive", and "usually disparaging".[12][13][14]

Derogatory and historical usage[edit]

"Chippeway Squaw and Child", 1842 print
Poster for the play The Squaw Man (1905); the term refers to a white man married to an Indian woman.
Advertisement for Just Squaw, a 1919 silent film.

In most colonial texts squaw was used as general word for Indigenous women. It also became a derogatory adjective used against some men, in "squaw man," meaning either "a man who does woman's work" (similar to other languages) or "a white man married to an Indian woman and living with her people".[15]

Colville / Okanagan author Mourning Dove, in her 1927 novel, Cogewea, the Half-Blood had one of her characters say,

If I was to marry a white man and he would dare call me a 'squaw'—as an epithet with the sarcasm that we know so well—I believe that I would feel like killing him. [16]

Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov, in his novel Pebble in the Sky (1950), wrote that science-fictional natives of other planets would use slurs against natives of Earth, such as, "Earthie-squaw".[17]

LaDonna Harris (Comanche), when speaking about empowering Native American schoolchildren in the 1960s at Ponca City, Oklahoma, recounted:

We tried to find out what the children found painful about school [causing a very high dropout rate]. (...) The children said that they felt humiliated almost every day by teachers calling them "squaws" and using all those other old horrible terms.[18]

Sexual references[edit]

An early comment in which "squaw" appears to have a sexual meaning is from the Canadian writer E. Pauline Johnson, who was of Mohawk heritage, but spent little time in that culture as an adult.[19] She wrote about the title character in An Algonquin Maiden by G. Mercer Adam and A. Ethelwyn Wetherald:

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, and no contradictory statements from either writer, hero or circumstance.[20]

Explicit statements that "squaw" came from a word meaning "female genitals" gained currency in the 1970s. Perhaps the first example was in Sanders and Peek (1973):

That curious concept of 'squaw', the enslaved, demeaned, voiceless childbearer, existed and exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa [also spelled ojiskwa] meaning 'female sexual parts', a word almost clinical both denotatively and connotatively. The corruption suggests nothing about the Native American's attitude toward women; it does indicate the wasichu's [white man's[21]] view of Native American women in particular if not all women in general.[22]

Early use by English colonists[edit]

One of the earliest appearances of the term in print is "the squa sachim, or Massachusetts queen" in the colonial booklet Mourt's Relation (1622), one of the first chronicles of the Plymouth colony, by the European colonists.[23]

Painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, made around 1859, titled "Bourgeois W—r, and His Squaw" [sic]

American Usage in the 19th century[edit]

Records of the picture by Alfred Jacob Miller document mid-19th century usage in America. The art collection's on-line caption for this picture explains that "Bourgeois W----r" names an individual fur trader, abbreviated in the literary convention of the period (1858.) The picture was commissioned at that date and is based on sketches made in Wyoming in 1837, "a unique record of the closing years of the western fur trade. . . . The term 'Bourgeois' is givien [sic] in the mountains to one who has a body of trappers placed under his immediate command. Capt. W----r, being trustworthy and intelligent, received an appointment of this kind . . . and with his men had many battles with the Indians.... The Squaw's station in travelling is at a considerable distance in the rear of her liege lord, and never at the side of him. W----r had the kindness to present the writer a dozen pair of moccasins worked by this squaw - richly embroidered on the instep with colored porcupine quills." [sic][24]

Efforts to rename placenames and terms with squaw in them[edit]

The United States Board on Geographic Names currently does not ban the use of the word squaw in placenames (only two slurs are banned at the federal level).[25] Despite this, Indigenous activists have continued to work both locally and in more general educational efforts, to rename the locations across North America that contain the slur, as well as to eliminate the slur from the lexicon in general.[3][26]

  • In 1988, the Squaw Rapids Dam on the Saskatchewan River was renamed the E.B. Campbell Dam.
  • In 1999, the Montana Legislature created an advisory group to replace the word squaw in local place names and required any replacement of a sign to bear the new name.[27]
  • In 2000, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the Maine Legislature collaborated to pass a law eliminating the words squaw and squa from all of the state's waterways, islands, and mountains. Some of those sites have been renamed with the word moose; others, in a nod to Wabanaki language-recovery efforts, are now being given new place-appropriate names in the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy languages.[28]
  • The American Ornithologists' Union changed the official American English name of the duck Clangula hyemalis from oldsquaw to the long-standing British name long-tailed duck, because of wildlife biologists' concerns about cooperation with Native Americans involved in conservation efforts, and for standardization.[29]
  • In 2003, Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Arizona, was renamed Piestewa Peak to honor the Iraq War casualty Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat for the US.
  • In October 2006, members of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Tribe called for the removal of the word squaw from the names of 13 locations in Idaho, with many tribal members reportedly believing the "woman's genitals" etymology.[30]
  • On January 15, 2008, the British Columbian portion of a tributary of the Tatshenshini River was officially renamed Dollis Creek by the BC Geographical Names Office.[31] The name "Squaw Creek" had been previously rescinded on December 8, 2000.
  • In 2011, the State Office of Historic Preservation updated the name of a California Historical Landmark formerly called "Squaw Rock", located between Hopland and Cloverdale, in the Russian River canyon, by changing the formal designation to "Frog Woman Rock" as a way to honor and respect the cultural heritage of the Pomo peoples of this region.
  • In 2015, the Buffalo Common Council voted to change the island formerly called "Squaw Island" to "Unity Island" (In the Seneca language, Deyowenoguhdoh), after being petitioned by members of the Seneca Nation of New York.[4]
  • In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service renamed the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, citing the alleged derogatory nature of the word.
  • In October 2017, the city of Provo, Utah, announced that it will be working alongside a local citizens' initiative to consider renaming Squaw Peak, though final authority for placenames rests with state and federal officials.[32]
  • In September of 2018, Squaw Ridge in Sierra Nevada was formally renamed Hungalelti Ridge, after a proposal by the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.[33]
  • On November 20, 2018, Saskatchewan's Killsquaw Lake - the site of a 19th century massacre of a group of Cree women - was renamed Kikiskitotawânawak Iskêwak, which, in Cree, means "we honour the women". The renaming effort was led by Indigenous lawyer, Kellie Wuttunee, in consultation with Cree elders and community leaders. "To properly respect and honour First Nations women, we can no longer have degrading geographic names in Saskatchewan. ... Even if unintentional, the previous name was harmful. By changing the name, we are giving a voice to the ones who are silenced," said Wuttunee, who has worked on missing and murdered Indigenous women cases. "Names are powerful. They inform our identity."[34]

The term persists in the officially sanctioned names of several municipalities, such as Squaw Grove Township, Illinois and Squaw Township, Iowa.[35][36]

As of November 2018, Squaw Valley Ski Resort, Squaw Valley (Oregon), Squaw Valley (Fresno County, California), Squaw Peak Inn, Squaw Lake (California), Squaw Lake (Minnesota), Squaw Lake (New York), Squaw Grove Township (DeKalb County, Illinois), Squaw Mountain Ranch, Squaw Valley Academy, Squaw Canyon Oil Field, Squaw Cap (New Brunswick), Squaw Creek Southern Railroad, Squaw Gap (North Dakota), and Squaw Creek (Payette River), to name a few, remain unchanged.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Vowel, Chelsea (2016). "Just Don't Call Us Late for Supper - Names for Indigenous Peoples". Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Highwater Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-1553796800. Let's just agree the following words are never okay to call Indigenous peoples: savage, red Indian, redskin, primitive, half-breed, squaw/brave/papoose.
  2. ^ a b c d National Museum of the American Indian (2007). Do All Indians Live in Tipis?. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-115301-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Mathias, Fern (December 2006). "SQUAW - Facts on the Eradication of the "S" Word". Western North Carolina Citizens For An End To Institutional Bigotry. American Indian Movement, Southern California Chapter. Archived from the original on 2002-08-02. Retrieved 2018-01-04. Through communication and education American Indian people have come to understand the derogatory meaning of the word. American Indian women claim the right to define ourselves as women and we reject the offensive term squaw.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Schulman, Susan (16 Jan 2015). "Squaw Island to be renamed 'Deyowenoguhdoh'". The Buffalo News. Retrieved 14 April 2019. The proposed name change comes at the request of Native Americans, who say the word "squaw" is a racist, sexist term
  5. ^ Arlene B. Hirschfelder; Paulette Fairbanks Molin (2012). The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists. Scarecrow. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8108-7709-2.
  6. ^ King, C. Richard, "De/Scribing Squ*w: Indigenous Women and Imperial Idioms in the United States" in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, v27 n2 p1-16 2003. Accessed Oct. 9, 2015
  7. ^ a b c Deborah Pelletier, Terminology Guide: Research on Aboriginal Heritage, Library and Archives, Canada, 2012. (PDF archived at internet archive) (Available on docplayer). Accessed September 24, 2016.
  8. ^ a b c "Squaw – Facts on the Eradication of the 'S' Word". Western North Carolina Citizens For An End To Institutional Bigotry. Retrieved 2017-12-10. When people argue that the word originates in American Indian language point out that: Although scholarship traces the word to the Massachusset Indians back in the 1650s, the word has different meanings (or may not exist at all) in hundreds of other American Indian languages. This claim also assumes that a European correctly translated the Massachusset language to English—that he understood the nuances of Indian speech.
  9. ^ Cutler 1994; Goddard 1996, 1997. Possibly as early as 1621.
  10. ^ a b Garcia, Alma (2012). Contested images women of color in popular culture. Lanham, Maryland: Altimia Press. pp. 157–168. ISBN 978-0759119635.
  11. ^ Green 1975
  12. ^ American Heritage Dictionary "squaw". Retrieved April 13, 2019.
  13. ^ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary."Squaw". Retrieved March 1, 2007.
  14. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. Entry: "Squaw".
  15. ^ Hodge, Frederick Webb. 1910. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 30. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007. This was a popular literary stereotype, as in The Squaw Man
  16. ^ Mourning Dove. 1927 (1981 edition). Cogewea, the Half-Blood, p. 112. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-8110-2.
  17. ^ Asimov, Isaac. 1971. Pebble in the Sky. Fawcett, Greenwich, Conn.
  18. ^ Harris, LaDonna. 2000. LaDonna Harris, A Comanche Life, edited by H. Henrietta Stockel, p. 59, University of Nebraska Press.
  19. ^ Lyon, George W. (1990). "Pauline Johnson: A Reconsideration". Studies in Canadian Literature. 15 (2): 136. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  20. ^ Johnson, Pauline. 1892. "A Strong Race Opinion on the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction". Reprinted in Keller, Betty. 1987. Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson, p. 119. Formac. ISBN 0-88780-151-X.
  21. ^ Lakota, literally [he who] "takes the fat" or "greedy one".
  22. ^ Sanders, Thomas E., and Walter W. Peek. 1973. Literature of the American Indian, page 184. Glencoe Press.
  23. ^ Goddard, Ives. 1997. "The True History of the Word Squaw" (PDF). Revised version of a letter printed in Indian Country News, mid April, 1997, p. 17A.
  24. ^ https://art.thewalters.org/detail/14801/bourgeois-w---r-and-his-squaw/
  25. ^ "From Negro Creek to Wop Draw, place names offend". 2012-02-26.
  26. ^ Callimachi, Rukmini (December 2006). "Removing 'Squaw' from the Lexicon". The Sacramento Union. Archived from the original on 2005-09-21. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  27. ^ Montana Code 2-15-149
  28. ^ Carrier, 2000.
  29. ^ American Ornithologists' Union, 2000.
  30. ^ Hagengruber, 2006.
  31. ^ "Dollis Creek". BCGNIS. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  32. ^ King, Jesse. "Provo explores renaming Squaw Peak but hasn't agreed on new moniker". Deseret News. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  33. ^ Squaw Ridge in Sierra Nevada renamed after proposal by Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California
  34. ^ "Indigenous lawyer led push to rename Sask.'s Killsquaw Lake to honour Cree women who died in 19th century - New name Kikiskitotawânawak Iskêwak means 'we honour the women'". CBC News. 20 November 2018. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  35. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Township of Squaw Grove
  36. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Squaw Township


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]