Tuesday, October 30, 2007


TWO OLD LADIES: My mother and her friend.

My backyard has a big tangle of “squaw wood,” that is, dead branches off my trees -- some of which were torn off by wind, some of which I broke off myself, and some of which were sawn off. This is not about my scrappy -- and to some offensive -- collection of wood which is destined for my little garage stove, but about what I call it. “Squaw wood” is not pejorative but refers to what a woman can collect handily from a stand of trees for a quick fire, maybe in a lodge where it would be good for heating water or cooking. Big limbs might be fed into the fire a bit at a time if there was no saw or hatchet available.

But one is NOT supposed to use the word “squaw” anymore. Activists, ever alert for slights and indignities, have ruled that it is an offensive word referring to the female organ. They are accustomed to the Euro or at least Brit idea that a female organ is likely to be named in a derogatory way, as contrasted to the celebratory or at least friendly euphemisms for the male organ. In truth, and as scholars have explained to no avail, the "Indian" word for the female organ is NOT “squaw” though in Athabascan Blackfeet the particle one attaches to the end of a word to indicate that it’s a woman’s name is “AKI,” which -- if pronounced with an “aw” instead of “ah” -- sounds like squaw, or at least rhymes with it. The word for the female organ is “beestinah.” I know this because the 7th grade boys at Heart Butte once began yelling the word at each other in the halls and then going off into gales of hideous laughter, which prompted me to get a translation.

Be that as it may, “squaw” has not been a friendly word in English. The connotation is someone old, bent, ignorant, smoky, greasy, etc. and in spite of all that, sexually available. When guys in a bar start muttering “squaw,” licking their lips, and looking over at a dark woman, she doesn’t take it as a compliment though she might be very proud to be a desirable Indian woman. She might want to remind those jokers about the reputation of squaws for enjoying torturing captives. It is a word that demonizes Indian women.

The movement to remove the word “squaw” from all maps has proven expensive both in terms of money and effort, but to many Indian women it is one small thing they can control in a world that still likes to push indigenous women into jokes and subservience. The Squaw Mountain just outside East Glacier is now “Dancing Woman Mountain.” I’m uncertain about the new name of the rocky outcrop that used to be called the “Papoose.” I suppose “papoose” and “buck” have either followed or preceded squaw out of polite useage. However, we still say Teton, despite it meaning “breast” in French, and one swelling hill near here is still called “Molly’s Nipple.” Of course, Molly was just one rancher’s wife and, according to what I hear, well able to defend herself. Hardly low class.

One might say, what use is there is changing names that were given in an unenlightened period of history when it would be more important to change the status of the women in question and improve their actual economic conditions? I guess the answer would be that the power to make the names change is a symptom and symbol of the rising fortunes of indigenous women. Once the movement begins, it pulls more people into its wake and empowers “squaws” in a way they need.

Now the movement to suppress Indians as team mascots has been pretty successful in eliminating in what is called “low hanging fruit,” easy pickin’s. But they’ve come to some quandaries that I wondered about earlier, like nearly all-Indian schools with names like Warriors, Chieftains, and -- indeed -- Indians. I’ve asked people around here (Browning is Indians and Heart Butte is Warriors) whether they think they should be prevented from calling themselves that, whether they feel it is demeaning. The result is generally a sort of fading and disappearance. Uuuuuummmmm.

Maybe mostly-Indian schools should go to names in their native languages: the Amskapi Pikuni or Kainah. A problem would arise over a team called the “Crees” since on Blackfeet Territory that name is sometimes used as a pejorative, more in the past than now.

I call my little book operation the “Nahpi-Yahki Press,” which the initiated will know is “White Woman Press.” When I started to teach here in 1961, I was told that if any student called me a “napi yaki” I was to take him or her straight to the office. It was a pejorative, especially said with a sneer and half under the breath. My mother used to rebuke my father, who was uneasy about his German blood (not much of it), by calling him a “Teuton.” Not a French “teton,” but an early name for the more-or-less German enemies of Rome. When the Teuton women were captured on one occasion, they asked to be temple handmaidens (nuns). They were denied, so in the night they killed all their children and strangled each other -- a collective act that was considered heroic. I don’t think either of my parents knew this story and maybe that’s a good thing, or “you Teuton” might have implied quite a bit more than she meant.

And that’s the problem, of course. A word acquires associations, maybe local and maybe widespread, maybe innocent and maybe political, possibly deadly. It seems to be the way we name things. If someone objects to a name, it seems only polite to avoid it, to rename the geography and honor the territory. Politeness is sometimes considered trivial, though it is a great social good. Try calling it diplomacy then.

The solution finally hit upon by some schools on reservations is to keep such names as Indians or Warriors unless the concerned tribe objects formally. This seems to be diplomatic, a way of putting control in the hands of those who feel the pejorative edge of the name.

1 comment:

Rebecca Clayton said...

Most of the Appalachian place names mentioning sexual parts were purged from the maps in the 19th century, but as I read them, they were friendly or frisky references, not particularly hostile to women.

I learned after I moved here that "Lick" is a word for a small creek. For some reason, not even the middle school kids think a popular fishing spot, "Beaver Creek" is funny. Of course, that didn't start out as a naughty reference.