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Respect Native Women - Stop Using the S-Word

The women's sports teams at St. Bonaventure University were once called the Brown Squaws. The men's teams at the school in upstate New York were called the Brown Indians.

"We were so proud to be Squaws," a former Bonaventure sportswoman told me, on the condition that her name would not be used. "I'm ashamed of it now, but it was part of my identity - it made us feel equal to the men.

"Then a Seneca chief and clan mothers came over from the reservation and asked us to stop using the name, because it meant vagina. We almost died of embarrassment. Of course, we stopped using it immediately."

It was in 1975 that the Seneca delegation visited the players and coaches at St. Bonaventure. It was in the same year that the school retired Brown Squaw, without fanfare or publicity, without being begged or sued. It responded to a dignified request to remove an indecency by doing so, quietly and quickly.

Since then, Native Peoples have succeeded in removing the s-word from hundreds of places and things, but the dialogue is not as civil today as it was 25 years ago. Polite requests often are met with even more name-calling - liars and politically correct whiners are the usual ones.

I was a guest on a 1992 Oprah Winfrey Show on the topic of stereotypes and explained why the viewers should stop using the s-word. For years afterward, I was stopped in airports, restaurants and other public places by people (mostly non-Native women) who thanked me for educating them about the word and said they had stopped using it and had told others to do the same.

The only negative reaction was from a Smithsonian "Indian expert" (isn't there always a government-paid "Indian expert"), who has since insisted to anyone who would listen that squaw only means young girl, in a language that no one living speaks fluently.

What do the real Indian experts say? Women and men who are fluent in the pertinent Native languages say that the s-word and variations of it are in several tribal languages of the Algonquian and Iroquoian linguistic stocks. They are descriptive words for a woman's genitalia.

The s-word was not and is not used by Native Peoples to describe, address or stand for a woman herself. In the 1600s and 1700s, European trappers began calling all women by that term. English dictionaries cleaned it up, defining it as an Indian wife or woman, or as a jocular reference for any kind of wife.

White men who married or consorted with Indian women were called squawmen by their brethren. It did not mean that the woman was the belle of the ball or that the man had married well. In American literature, movies and cartoons, the s-word always means the dumb, dumpy, loose, old and/or ugly thing walking ten paces behind a man. It never means that the woman in question is smart, stunning or a sweetheart.

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In 2000, as the Maine legislature was considering a law to drop the s-word from all place names in the state, 20/20 host Barbara Walters and correspondent John Stossel derided the effort in a Give Me A Break segment. The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Donna Loring (Penobscot), said the "name is offensive to us and we feel that, if the name is offensive and abusive, then change it."

"There is, by no means, unanimity in the Indian community about the name," claimed Stossel, who predicted that "tourists looking at maps won't find the ski resort, plus taxpayers have to pay to change all the signs." The Maine bill was passed in the legislature and signed into law less than one month after the broadcast.

Despite the sniping, Native Peoples are enjoying steady success in removing the s-word. Native and non-Native women in Oregon initiated a movement in 1992 that resulted in squawfish being eliminated as an official name for the endangered pikeminnow.

A cross-cultural coalition convinced the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 1997 to change the name of Squaw Gulch in the Klamath National Forest in California to Taritsi, which means Indian woman in the language of the Shasta Tribe.

Last year, after Forrest Cuch (Ute) drew attention to shot glasses that sported the s-word, their distributor not only took them off the market, but apologized for the offense. Cuch, who directs Utah's division of Indian affairs, is promoting a renaming measure for places throughout the state. Arizona's was the first legislature to see the introduction of a statewide bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Jackson (Navajo) in 1992, but it did not make it to the governor's desk.

Minnesota was the first state, in 1995, to establish a law to remove the s-word from all its sites, followed by Montana in 1999 and Oklahoma in 2000. Nebraska has changed some place names and one in Colorado is under consideration for change.

Credit for the victory in Minnesota belongs to the Ojibwe and other students at the Cass Lake-Bena High School who started the Name Change Committee, which remains a force in activities nationwide. Montana Rep. Carol Juneau (Blackfeet) spearheaded the effort in her state and Red Rock Mayor Geary Watson (Choctaw) inspired the Oklahoma law.

In Canada, the government of British Columbia announced at the end of 2000 that it would rename all places in the province that use the s-word. It had already been dropped from other Canadian geographic locations in Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.

Legislation to eliminate the s-word statewide is pending in Idaho and South Dakota. Prospects are good for both bills, which are supported broadly by tribal and state officials. The Idaho Senate just passed its bill with only one naysayer, who wondered aloud if the Indian tribes would compensate private businesses for any losses from the redesignations.

Words to the wise: it's best to avoid talk of making Native Peoples pay for anything associated with this degradation and to get on with the business of doing the right thing. Respect Native women and drop the s-word.