August 17, 2010

Explorers didn't consider "squaw" offensive

A columnist offers a soft defense of places named "squaw":

Drawing the line on offensive place names

By Thom PowellAlgonquian as a tribal language was spoken only in the northeast corner of the U.S. and Canada. Three quarters of the continent's tribes did not recognize the word at all, much less regard it as something offensive. Nineteenth century linguists may have incorrectly translated the word as a more general reference to female Indians. Being easy to pronounce and remember, it was then carried across the continent in the minds of explorers, trappers and settlers who were completely unaware of any implied insult associated with the term.

They were a hardy bunch, but the early settlers were not always literate, and they definitely weren't politically correct. They doubtless used disparaging terms for females of all races, including their own. Yet, "squaw" was not meant to demean or offend when it was assigned to plants (squawberry, squawroot), places (Squawback Ridge, Squaw Butte), and people, male or female. Interestingly, a white man who took an Indian bride was a "squawman."
Comment:  I'm sure the explorers and so forth didn't intend to insult anyone (much). They also didn't intend to insult anyone much when they named a place with words such as "savage," "redskin," and "dead Indian." They considered these neutral, descriptive words, not racial epithets.

Which leads us to the present, and:

1) Who cares what the explorers thought or intended? What matters is what we think now.

2) Regardless of the origin or meaning of "squaw," it has become a disreputable word akin to "negress" or "Jewess." As far as I know, no place names use those words, so why should we retain "squaw"?

3) What's the point of calling something Indian Woman Mountain, Indian Woman Butte, or Indian Woman Creek? These are unoriginal and uninteresting names. They tell us nothing about the geographic features. I bet the only time "squaw" had any meaning was when something looked like a woman's part or reminded someone of sex. That's a stupid reason for keeping a "squaw" name.

As I've said before, let's give all these places their original Indian names. Or at least real Indian names. If they were named after a woman, let's identify her and use her name. But it's silly to keep these generic names for the sake of generic history. And doubly so since many Indians consider them offensive.

For recent uses of "squaw," see Sick Cartoonist Callahan Dies and "Sexy Squaws" at Neon Indian Concert. For more background on "squaw," see Disreputable History of "Squaw," "Squaw" on the Way Out, and Nothing Wrong with "Squaw"? For more on renaming places, see Changing Park Name = Guilt Trip? and Renaming Mt. Ranier.


Anonymous said...

There is a mountain in the middle of Arizona. It is now called Piestewa Peak, after the first Native American woman to die on duty while serving as a U.S. soldier. (Lori Ann Piestewa, a Navajo Nation resident who died in Iraq.) The mountain was named shortly after her death, and the name became official five years later.

The previous name of this mountain was Squaw Peak. There was certainly controversy over whether this was an insulting name for a mountain or not. While looking into the subject, I found that the name had already been shortened once--from "Squaw Tit Peak".

Yeah, I'm pretty sure no one intended to be respectful when they used this slur in the naming of something, no matter how much people might protest otherwise.

Rob said...

I'm sure a lot of those "squaw" names were more derogatory originally, Anonymous.