The word s-word certainly has had its share of history. In researching its meaning, s-word is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman. According to which historian you speak to on any given day or which link you click in a Google search, there are several theories regarding the word’s origin. Most notably negative and perhaps the most feared definition of the word is that s-word translates to vagina.
Though the origins of s-word may have several questionably confirmed sources historically, Indigenous women say that the term is offensive.
One such effort in support of this belief is that Piestewa Peak was renamed from S-word Peak to honor Lori Piestewa. The peak was renamed to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi/Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.
Some historical connections
According to Dr. Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki historical consultant, s-word means the totality of being female and the Algonquin version of the word “esqua,” “squa” “skwa” does not translate to a woman’s female anatomy.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the term as “often offensive: an American Indian woman” and “usually disparaging: woman, wife.”
The Urban Dictionary paints a different picture. It says the word s-word “Does not mean vagina, or any other body part for that matter. The word comes from the Massachusett (no S) Algonquian tribe and means: female, young woman. The word s-word is not related to the Mohawk word ‘ojiskwa’: which does mean vagina. There is absolutely no derogatory meaning in the word ‘s-word.’ ‘s-word’ has been a familiar word in American literature and language since the 16th century and has been generally understood to mean an Indian woman, or wife.” It is worth noting the Urban Dictionary is not an authoritative Native source.
In her article “Reclaiming the word ‘s-word’ in the Name of the Ancestors,” Dr. Bruchac wrote the following excerpt about the meaning of s-word.
“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 ‘S-word Sachem’=female chief. When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address ‘nuncksquassis’=‘little woman baby’.”
“I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over,” wrote Bruchac.
There is no mistaking the strength in passion against the word. For several years after the article, Bruchac received death threats for her stance.
The first recorded version of s-word was found in a book called Mourt’s Relation: A Journey of the Pilgrims at Plymouth written in 1622. The term was not used in a derogatory fashion but spoke of the “squa sachim or Massachusets Queen” in the September 20, 1621 journal entry.
Though the earliest historical references support a non-offensive slant on the meaning of s-word and support Bruchac’s claims, there are also several literary and historical instances of s-word being used in a derogatory or sexually connotative way.
According to some proponents on the inflammatory side of the words meaning, s-word could just as easily have come from the Mohawk word ojiskwa’ which translates politely to vagina.
In the 1892 book An Algonquin Maiden by Canadian writer Pauline Johnson, whose father was a Mohawk Chief, the word s-word indicates a sexual meaning.
“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 ‘(s-word)’ and neither hero nor authors deny that she is a (s-word). 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…”
Loretta Lynn had an album titled "Your (S-word) Is On the Warpath," which many Indigenous people have cited as extremely offensive and stereotypical.
In a 1973 book, Literature of the American Indian, authors Sanders and Peek straightforwardly asserted the term s-word “exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa, meaning female sexual parts…”
Of all the support for the negative, the word s-word got its highest claim to defame when Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee American Indian rights activist appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and said on-air that s-word was an Algonquin word meaning vagina and that the word s-word was viewed by many Native people as the “S-word.”
Though several journalists have supported Harjo, the jury is still out when it comes to the meaning of the word s-word. Most historians and linguists appear to be more supportive of a non-derogatory meaning, the use of the word is still looked at as offensive to many others.
In the years since Harjo’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, efforts to rename geographical sites swung into full-force. In the first four months of 2008, the U.S. Board on Geographic names renamed 16 valleys creeks and other sites omitting the name s-word.
As formerly mentioned, the most high-profile case at that time sought by the National Congress of American Indians was the renaming of the Phoenix hiking spot S-word Peak to Piestewa Peak. The peak was renamed to honor Lori Piestewa, a Hopi/Hispanic soldier from Arizona who was killed in Iraq in 2003.
This story was originally published on January 31, 2014.
UPDATE: This story has been updated on February 23, 2022, to fit the current ICT Style Guide. ICT does not repeat the s-word.