The English word Squaw is an ethnic and sexual slur, historically used for Indigenous North American women. Use of the term, especially by non-Natives, is now considered highly offensive, derogatory, misogynist and racist.
The English word is not used among Native American, First Nations, Inuit or Métis peoples. While a similar morpheme is found within some longer words is some of the Eastern Algonquian languages, these languages only make up a small minority of the languages spoken in the hundreds of Indigenous communities affected by this slur. Even in Algonquian, the words used are not the English-language slur, but longer, Algonquian words that only contain one morpheme. 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", "skwa", "esqua", "sqeh", "skwe", "que", "kwa", "ikwe", "exkwew", "xkwe", and a number of other variants.
Algonquian language origins
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The words for "woman" in the various Algonquian languages derive from Proto-Algonquian *[eθkweːwa]. In the daughter languages, the first consonant sound has variously changed to /s/ (Narragansett squaw, Cree iskwēw), /x/ (Lenape xkwē < əxkwew), or been lost (Shawnee ekwēwa, Ojibwe ikwe). The pronunciation squaw or skwa is found in the northerly Eastern Algonquian languages in New England and Quebec.
One of its earliest appearances in print is "the squa sachim, or Massachusets queen" in Mourt's Relation (1622), one of the first chronicles of the Plymouth colony (Goddard 1997). William Wood similarly defined "Squaw - a woman" in his list, "A Small Nomenclature of the Indian Language," in New England's Prospect (Wood 1637). Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, in his book A Key Into the Language of America (1643), published several words that exemplify the use of this morpheme in the Narragansett language:
- Squàws – woman, Squàwsuck – women, Squásese – A little Girle, Sauncksquûaog – Queenes, Keegsquaw – A Virgin or Maide, Segousquaw – A Widdow.
Algonquian linguists and historians have confirmed that the term appears in almost all of the Algonquian languages, through such examples as "Narragansett squaw, probably with an abbreviation of eskwaw, cognate with the Delaware (Lenape) ochqueu, the Chippewa ikwe, the Cree iskwew, etc." (Hodge 1910).
The Saint Francis Abenaki Chief Joseph Laurent (1884) illustrated the neutral usage of the term among Abenaki speakers to refer to both Native and non-Native women. As a suffix it means "wife," as in "Sôgmò; —skua," translated as "A chief; chief's wife." Other examples are
- Nôkskuasis – A young little girl. Patlihóskua – A nun. Kinjamesiskua – A queen. Awanochwi-skuaso – The queen [cards]. Kuibekiskua – A lady (woman) from Quebec. Pastoniskua – An American woman. Iglismôniskua – An English woman. Illôdaskua – An Irish woman.
The Abenakis' word for a queen, "Kinjamesiskua," recorded as "Kinjames'isqua" by another Abenaki author (Masta 1932), literally translates as "King James' wife."
In 1940, the anthropologist Frank Speck noted the appearance of this morpheme in various terms in the Penobscot language, including the following.
- nȣkskwe'sis = girl, nȣkskwe = young woman, na'kskwe'si'zak = a call for women to come and dance, Mi'kmaskwe'sis = a little Micmac woman, agwuskwe'zun = women's head coverings, gwanuskwa'kwsȣsak = long, peaked hood-like caps so characteristic of the northern peoples (Speck 1940).
Some authors, such as Jonathan Periam describing American Indian corn-growing practices of the early 19th century in Illinois, used the word repeatedly, and nonchalantly. Frederick Webb Hodge from the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology, in his Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (1910), noted the widespread usage of this term across the region:
- As a term for woman squaw has been carried over the length and breadth of the United States and in Canada, and is even in use by Indians on the reservations of the W., who have taken it from the whites.
The adjective form of squaw has been widely applied to indigenous plants used by Native peoples as medicine specific to female complaints. The Oxford English Dictionary notes:
- In names of plants, as squaw-berry, the edible berry of one of several shrubs, esp. the bear-berry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, an evergreen prostrate creeper; squaw corn, a variety of maize having soft grains of various colours; squaw huckleberry, -root, -weed, whortleberry (see quots.). Also squaw-bush, -carpet, -flower, -grass, -mint, -vine (OED 1989).
The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico lists several such plants that are still prized by both traditional herbalists and modern pharmaceutical companies.
- After the squaw have been named: Squawberry (the partridge berry), squaw bush (in various parts of the country, Cornus stolonifera, C. sericea, and C. canadensis) ... squaw flower (Trillium erectum, also called squaw root) ... squaw mint (the American pennyroyal), squawroot (in different parts of the country, Trillium erectum, the black and the blue cohosh, Conopholis americana, and other plants) ... squaw vine (a New England name for the partridge berry) (Hodge 1910).
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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" (Hodge 1910). (This was a popular literary stereotype, as in The Squaw Man.)
- "And follow this fortune hunter like a—like a squaw behind her man?"
- "Like a squaw," she answered steadily, "if you choose to use that word!"
- "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."
Perhaps in view of such uses as those above, one early-20th-century dictionary of American usage called squaw "a contemptuous term" (Crowell 1928).
- "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" (Harris 2000).
In this case the term seems to have been regularly applied to girls in the lower grades of the elementary school, long before their puberty.
An early comment in which "squaw" appears to have a sexual meaning is from the Canadian writer Pauline Johnson (1892), whose father was a Mohawk chief. 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.
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] view of Native American women in particular if not all women in general.
The controversy increased when Oprah Winfrey invited the Native American activist Suzan Harjo onto her show in 1992. Harjo said on the show that "squaw is an Algonquin Indian word meaning vagina." As a result of these claims, some Native people have taken to spelling the word sq***, or calling it the "s-word" (Bright n.d.). This purported etymology has been widely adopted as the rationale for removing the word from maps, road signs, history books, and other public uses (Adams 2000).
However, according to Ives Goddard, the curator and senior linguist in the anthropology department of the Smithsonian Institution, this statement is not true (Bright n. d.; Goddard 1997). The word was borrowed as early as 1621 from the Massachusett word squa (Cutler 1994; Goddard 1996, 1997), one of many variants of the Proto-Algonquian *eθkwe·wa (Goddard 1997); in those languages it meant simply "young woman." Although Algonquian linguists and historians (e.g. Goddard 1997, Bruchac 1999) have rejected Harjo's proposed etymology, it has been repeated (without citing etymologies) by several journalists and the entertainer Oprah Winfrey. Goddard also writes:
- I have no doubt that some speakers of Mohawk sincerely believe that it is from their word ojískwa 'vagina' (though I know that other Mohawks laugh at the whole idea), but the resemblance (if there is one) is entirely accidental. "Vagina" was not a meaning that was ever known to the original users of the word, and although it appears in a college anthology published in 1973 (Random House, 2000), it was not widely known before Suzan Harjo's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992."
Goddard does not rule out the possibility that the false etymology could have been believed by some non-Mohawks and thus does not rebut statements by Native people who trace the etymology to local memories of insulting language (e.g., Hagengruber 2006).
Some anecdotal evidence has also been found by Mohawk linguists that suggests that "otsikwa" may actually be a modern slang term for "cornmeal mush" (referred to by Palmer 2001).
The term "squaw" is now universally offensive due to its use for hundreds of years in a derogatory context. Apart from any linguistic debate, the word "squaw" is offensive because of usage that demeans Native American women, ranging from condescending images (e.g., picture postcards depicting "Indian squaw and papoose") to racialized epithets. At best, it is similar in tone to the words "Negress" and "Jewess," which treat non-white women as if they were second-class citizens or exotic objects.
Some Native women have attempted to address this problem by calling attention to what they consider the appropriate indigenous context of this word (Palmer 2001). During a featured panel discussion titled "Squaw: Algonkian Linguistics and Colonial Politics" at the "All Women of Red Nations" Women's Studies Conference at Southern Connecticut State University in 2001, Native women from the Abenaki, Schaghticoke, and Wampanoag tribes stressed the need for accurate understandings of colonial histories, and respect for linguistic differences, to avoid misrepresenting and disrespecting Algonquian language recovery efforts (Bruchac, Fermino, and Richmond 2001).
No matter the linguistic origins, many Native women feel that any "reclamation" efforts would only apply to a small percentage of Native women - those from the Algonquian language groups - while the slur has now been applied in a degrading manner to all Native women. And the history and depth of this slur 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. In 2015, Jodi Lynn Maracle (Mohawk) and Agnes Williams (Seneca) petitioned the Buffalo Common Council, to change the name of "Squaw Island" to Deyowenoguhdoh. 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. 
Anti-racist groups have also worked to educate about, and encourage the elimination of, the slur:
When people say "it never used to bother Indian women to be called squaw," respond with the following questions and statement.
- Were American Indian women or people ever asked? Have you ever asked an American Indian woman, man, or child how they feel about the word? (Do not say the word yourself, simply call it the "s" word) then state that it has always been used to insult American Indian women.
When people ask "why now?" explain that:
- 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.
Reflecting efforts to be more culturally sensitive, several dictionaries now warn that squaw is frequently considered to be, can be, or is offensive (NSOED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, respectively).
Efforts to rename placenames and terms with squaw in them
Other Native people would like to see the word eliminated altogether regardless of its Algonquian origins and etymology. This desire has inspired a number of local initiatives, many controversial, to change the hundreds of placenames across America that contain squaw.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As of October 2017, 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 Creek (Payette River) and Squaw Creek (British Columbia), to name a few, have not changed their names.
- Stereotypes of Native Americans
- Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
- Indigenous feminism
- Native American feminism
- 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.
- National Museum of the American Indian (2007). Do All Indians Live in Tipis?. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-115301-3.
- 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.
- Schulman, Susan (16 Jan 2015). "Squaw Island to be renamed 'Deyowenoguhdoh'". The Buffalo News. Retrieved 10 Dec 2017.
The proposed name change comes at the request of Native Americans, who say the word “squaw” is a racist, sexist term
- Arlene B. Hirschfelder; Paulette Fairbanks Molin (2012). The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists. Scarecrow. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8108-7709-2.
- King, C. Richard, "[http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ787736 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
- Deborah Pelletier, Terminology Guide: Research on Aboriginal Heritage, Library and Archives, Canada, 2012. (PDF archived at internet archive) (Available on docplayer). Accessed Sept. 24, 2016.
- "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.
- Cutler 1994; Goddard 1996, 1997. Possibly as early as 1621
- Home and Farm Manual, 1884
- When Isaac Asimov needed a slur in Pebble in the Sky (1950) that science-fictional natives of other planets would use against natives of Earth, he looked to this term:
- Lieutenant Claudy… said harshly, "Your name, Earthie-squaw?"
- The term itself was richly insulting…
- Lakota, literally [he who] "takes the fat" or "greedy one".
- Goddard notes "the * means the word is unattested."
- Garcia, Alma (2012). Contested images women of color in popular culture. Lanham, Md: Altimia Press. pp. 157–168. ISBN 0759119635.
- Green 1975
- Adams 2000
- Bright n.d.; Mihuesah, 2003.
- Callimachi, 2005.
- Montana Code 2-15-149
- Carrier, 2000.
- American Ornithologists' Union, 2000.
- Hagengruber, 2006.
- King, Jesse. "Provo explores renaming Squaw Peak but hasn't agreed on new moniker". Deseret News. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
- American Heritage Dictionary on line. "Squaw". Retrieved March 1, 2007.
- American Ornithologists' Union. 2000. Forty-second supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 117:847–858.
- Barwood, Francis Emma. 2003. Letter to Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Bright, William. N. d. "The Sociolinguistics of the 'S- Word': 'Squaw' in American Placenames." In: Names 48, 2000, pp. 207–216. .doc, Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Brand, Max. 1926 (1951 edition). The Whispering Outlaw, p. 193. Leisure Books. ISBN 0-8439-3678-9.
- Bruchac, Marge (Abenaki), with Jessie Little Doe Fermino (Wampanoag) and Trudie Lamb Richmond (Schaghticoke). 2001. "Squaw: Algonkian Linguistics and Colonial Politics," featured panel discussion at the "All Women of Red Nations" Women’s Studies Conference at Southeastern University, New Haven, CT.
- Callimachi, Rukmini. April 1, 2005. Removing 'Squaw' from the Lexicon, The Sacramento Union.
- Carrier, Paul. June 27, 2000. 'Squaw' renaming may have exception. Portland Press Herald.
- Cutler, Charles L. 1994. O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2655-8
- 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.
- Green, Rayna. 1975. "The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture." Massachusetts Review 16:698-714.
- Hagengruber, James. 2006. "Tribe wants 'squaw' off map". SpokesmanReview.Com (Idaho), Oct. 6, 2006. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2007.
- Harris, LaDonna. 2000. LaDonna Harris, A Comanche Life, edited by H. Henrietta Stockel, p. 59, University of Nebraska Press.
- Hodge, Frederick Webb. 1910. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 30. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
- Hoxie, Frederick E. 1996. Encyclopedia of North American Indians, p. 603. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-66921-9.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. "Squaw". Retrieved March 1, 2007.
- 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.
- Laurent, Chief Joseph. 1884. New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. Quebec, Leger Brousseau. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
- Masta, Henry Lorne. 1932. Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar and Place Names. Odanak, P.Q., Canada.
- Mihesuah, Devon Abbott. 2003. Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism. University of Nebraska Press.
- Mourning Dove. 1927 (1981 edition). Cogewea, the Half-Blood, p. 112. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-8110-2.
- New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. "Squaw".
- Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary. 20 volumes. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Parezo, Nancy J., and Angelina R. Jones. 2009. "What’s in a Name? The 1940s–1950s “Squaw Dress”." American Indian Quarterly, Summer 2009, Vol. 33, No. 3.
- Partridge, Eric. 1958. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Reprint by Greenwich House, 1966. ISBN 0-517-41425-2
- Random House. Nov. 2, 2000. The Maven's Word of the Day.
- Sanders, Thomas E., and Walter W. Peek. 1973. Literature of the American Indian, page 184. Glencoe Press.
- Speck, Frank G. 1940. "Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Steele, James W. 1883. Frontier Army Sketches, page 84. Chicago: Jansen McClurg. Quoted by Bright.
- Weseen, Maurice H. 1928. Crowell's Dictionary of English Grammar and Handbook of American Usage, page 603. New York: Crowell. Quoted by Bright.
- SQUAW - Facts on the Eradication of the "S" Word at Teach Respect Not Racism - Western North Carolina Citizens For An End To Institutional Bigotry
- Squelching the S-Word at Blue Corn Comics, collection of articles and correspondence on topic