Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 4: The Term Squaw

I don’t remember when I first heard it, but I suspect it was in the 1990’s.  I do know that I hear it often now when I meet someone and they learn that I write Native American Antiquity or Native American historical fiction.  They are often proud to share with me that the word “squaw” is offensive to Native Americans because it refers to a woman’s private parts—specifically the vagina.

Until recently, I never bothered to research it and halfway believed it myself.  It turns out that it actually has an interesting etymology.  If you look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is the only dictionary that my high school English teacher would accept, it says:

[of Algonquin origin: akin to Natick squaas woman] 
1 an American Indian woman 2 woman, wife – usu. used disparagingly.

In the mobile app version:

1 often offensive: an American Indian woman
2 usually disparaging: woman, wife
Origin: Massachusetts squa, ussqua woman
First use: 1634
I think that these definitions, in a way, support the notion that "squaw" may mean more than just woman or wife which might lead one to jump to the conclusion that the rumor is true.  But, what is the truth?  The following is quoting Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki woman:
Algonquin village, 1600
“Squaw is NOT an English word.  It IS a phoenetic rendering of an Algonkian word that does NOT translate to “a woman’s private parts”.  The word “squaw” – as “esqua,” “squa,” skwa,” “skwe” and other variants—traditionally means the totality of being female, not just the female anatomy.  The word has been interpreted by modern activists as a slanderous assault against Native American women.  But traditional Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and English, still say words like “nidobaskwa”=a female friend, “manigebeskwa”=woman of the woods, or “Squaw Sachem”=female chief.  When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address “nuncksquassis”=”little woman baby.”

The earliest use of the word was in the early 1600’s, some say specifically 1621, when English settlers in the state of Massachusetts adopted the Indian word “squa” from their Massachusett-speaking neighbors .  It simply meant “female or younger woman”. 

In 1973, the book “Literature of the American Indian”, by Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek, stated, without offering evidence, the theory that “squaw” derived from the Mohawk word “ojiskwa” meaning “vagina”.   The English settlers in Massachusetts would not have made contact with the Mohawk at that time, but the notion caught on and was widely circulated in the activist community.
Suzan Harjo on Oprah 1992

The controversy increased when Oprah Winfrey invited the Native American activist Suzan Harjo onto her show in 1992. Harjo said on the show, "The word squaw is an Algonquin [sic] Indian word meaning vagina, and that'll give you an idea of what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again."

After her appearance, organized efforts began to remove the word “squaw” from place names.  This campaign continues today with mixed success.

Ives Goddard, the curator and senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, 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.

“It is as certain as any historical fact can be that the word squaw that the English settlers in
Massachusetts used for 'Indian woman' in the early 1600s was adopted by them from the word squa that their Massachusett-speaking neighbors used in their own language to mean 'female, younger woman,' and not from Mohawk ojiskwa', 'vagina,' which has the wrong shape [sound], the wrong meaning, and was used by people with whom they then had no contact. The resemblance that might be perceived between squaw and the last syllable of the Mohawk word is coincidental."

It is true that over time some white’s used the term in a disparaging  fashion.  But the insult was more in the disrespectful way they said it, not as an obscene insult.  So, go ahead and use the word “squaw” if you want to, just be careful of your tone.
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles
available in book stores, Barnes & Nobles, and


  1. Thank you. charlie

  2. Not all native american languges are the same is some that term would reference vagina and others its penis and others is doesn't exsist. But based on what ever dedinition you want to put to it squaw has been used in a derogatory way and bottom line alot of native american women are offened by the term. To honor people of a diffrent culture you must honor them in thier ways not yours. My Heritage is Aniyunwia my family is deer clan my heritage is also gypsy I seriously doubt you can honor me or my people or ancestors because with all your book birn research and intelligence you fail to see the heart of The People