Wednesday, August 10, 2011


(This is part of a response to the the Ross-Finley article in Indian Country Today)
When the controversy over the word “squaw” broke out, I was teaching in Cut Bank High School, a short-lived job where I was in an awkward position.  (In more ways than one, but let’s stick to this one.)  A competent and beautiful Indian female student came to interview me on the subject for the student newspaper.  I don’t think the story ever made it to print, but it was a puzzle what to say.  She really wanted to know for herself.  Was it truly a bad word?  Was she a “squaw”? What should she do if someone referred to her that way?  Cut Bank is the white town next to the rez with all the implications of that.
I told her what I really thought.  First, people have a right to be called what they want and if they think some jokey slur like “beaner” or “chink” is pejorative, insulting and meant to be exactly that, then the word is out of bounds.  Second, no word contains the insult -- it’s the attitude of the people using it.  THAT’s what needs changing.  Third, “squaw” is an historical word pretty deeply embedded in American culture so it’s bound to show up the way “nigger” shows up in “Huckleberry Finn.”  It cost thousands of dollars to remove the squaw names from maps and invent new names, but the issue was so hot that it really had to be done to show good intentions and political cooperation.  (I thought they should also address the nearby butte called “Molly’s Nipple,” but no one paid attention.)
I’ve heard the Western history aficionadoes say “squaw” without any consciousness of the issues involved.  I’ve heard plenty of people of all kinds use the word “squaw” in a belittling way, meaning a squat, dark, smoke-smelling, greasy, uneducated person -- a stereotype and a pejorative -- often justifying bad treatment to that person.  But I’ve never heard anyone -- Indian or not -- shout “you squaw” in anger.
About ten years earlier than teaching in Cut Bank, I was teaching in Heart Butte when the seventh grade boys began shouting a Blackfeet word at each other.  (I decided not to use the word here in case there are seventh grade boys reading this.)  They got so much hilarity out of the word that I checked it out with the Blackfeet language teacher.  It meant the woman’s sex organ.  So I told the boys to quit shouting the equivalent of “vagina” at each other because it was rude and stupid.  They knew that.  What they didn’t know was the word “vagina,” until I translated to “cunt.”  Then they all turned bright red.  (Well, redder than usual.)  They KNEW that was a bad word.
The word that was going around the country among Indian women and what propelled much of their indignation was the idea that “squaw” meant “cunt.”  In fact, it is simply the part of a word that means “female,” without specific anatomy.   Probably it’s a corruption of what is “aki” in the Blackfeet  language,  meaning female and forming a female name:  Napi-Yahkee is the word for a white woman.  (Napi for white people because they are kind of spooky crazy and unaccountable, like Napi.)  I chose it as the name for my publishing press deliberately, though among really old Blackfeet speakers it was not generally used kindly.  I have been called that in anger. 
Marge Bruchac, a highly respected and competent Native American scholar and sister to much-beloved Joseph Bruchac, wrote a paper thoroughly investigating the origins of the word “squaw” and came to the conclusion that it was NOT about genitals but rather about gender.  All across the country, Indian women put their fingers in their ears.  Indignation about “squaw” was such a powerful political force that they did not want to give it up.  They loved the re-naming ceremonies and the chance to tell the media what they thought.  They felt they had de-coded the secret language of the oppressors and they were right.  Referring to someone as a “squaw” is often a justification for treating them badly, esp. in a sexual way -- like rape, as the statistics show.  It’s a word that indicates stigma and therefore a seeming permission for abuse.
In the old days Indian woman compensated for this by wearing knives in their high-top moccasins and using them skillfully.  These days the law frowns on that.  Women stuck together in groups when going for water or whatever.  It was not unlike any tribal open-country life on the planet.  What changed was the coming of the Napi-kwans, who considered themselves high status and left their Napi-akis behind.  (Some of the early indigenous people theorized that they didn’t have any females where they came from.  I do not know whether anyone thinks a "kwan" is a you-know-what.) 
This created a sociological encounter that swept the continent and had lasting consequences.  (The book I recommend is “Many Tender Ties” by Sylvia Van Kirk.)  On the high prairie much of this was prompted by the fur trade because white men came as trappers, factors, and explorers.  They needed domestic support.  White men formed enough alliances with Indian women to create a nation: the Metis in the Red River Country, a cultural diaspora with no national boundaries but much passion and persistence.  (See Peter Bowen novels.)  Some of these men were pretty rough and violent.  Even the more educated ones would pick up a woman, make children with her, then discard her when it was convenient.  But some created true marriages, even official ones when the means were there.  (Not much clergy in the early times.)  Dr. John McLaughlin, “the White-headed Eagle,” who ruled the Pacific Northwest for decades;  Alexander Culbertson, whose riverboat came from St. Louis every summer; David Thompson, who was in Alberta before Lewis & Clark came through; Malcolm Clarke whose murder set off a massacre; all had lifelong Indian wives they valued and married.  These women were often both attractive and intelligent, capable diplomats in a risky world.  Their children were sent to school back east or in Europe.  In Cut Bank a descendant of Natawista and Alexander Culbertson was in one of my classes.  He looked quite a lot like Natawista.
My preference for dealing with the word “squaw” would have been along the lines of “black is beautiful.”  Regardless of controversy, and whatever you call achieving and graceful women of Native American descent, squaws are beautiful.  Eloise Cobell is a dignified and incredibly effective woman.  So are Mary Margaret McKay Johnson, Denise Juneau and Lila Walters Evans.  I’ve watched their lives for decades as they went from young and blooming red roses to their present lives as leaders.  They do not carry knives in their pumps but I do not advise making enemies of them.   They walk in a Red Pride Bubble.
(More to come.)


Anonymous said...

I loved squawbread as a little kid. My grandma made it, and called it squawbread. That's what I thought it was called. My grandma was Indian and born and raised on a reservation. I thought she should know what it was called. It wasn't until many years later that I heard other people called it frybread.

Anonymous said...

I love this fine exploration of a word and its modern meanings. You have approached this with dignity and good sense.