"Squaw" – An Ethnographic Interpretation


My intent is to explore the ethnographic significances and meanings of the word "squaw" as understood by contemporary Indian peoples in the context of its use by Euro-Americans. As my professional associations have been with the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce of Idaho, research for this short synopsis will be anchored from their perspectives. Please see my home page for an outline of my research qualifications. 

While the term is used as a geographical place-name throughout Idaho, it also has an extensive vernacular application as well. Given that the significances and meanings associated with its place-name and speech usages interface and affect one another, it is within the total context of the daily use of the word "squaw" by Indians and whites that I am most concerned. 

Research for this study is based upon my involvement in various Indian collaborative projects over the past twenty-five years, interviews I conducted with Indian consultants, and upon written documentation those consultants provided. This synopsis should be viewed as a small contribution to a vast literature which has already been submitted in public testimony and written documentation.

An Alien, Non-Indian Term with Assimilation Connotations. For members of the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce communities, the word "squaw" is understood as an alien, non-Indian term, likely introduced first by the Corps of Discovery and Lewis and Clark in 1805, and certainly by early fur traders and trappers who soon after arrived in Idaho. As such, the specific term does not have an indigenous linguistic equivalence, nor has it been translated into the Coeur d’Alene or Nez Perce language. Its use as a geographical place-name is given the particular significance as it reflects the processes through which Euro-Americans sought to impose various levels of cultural, economic and political jurisdiction and sovereignty over the Indian tribes of Idaho. The eventual "ownership" and control of vast tracks of land and natural resources by the dominate society has always been expedited by first replacing the specific indigenous terms for the lakes, rivers and mountains with Euro-American terms. The use of the term "squaw" is part of this assimilation process, and hence has this connotation by Indian peoples.

A Derogatory and Demeaning Term. In the communities which border the reservations of north-central Idaho, the social contexts within which the word "squaw" is often uttered by whites and received by Indians is critical in elucidating the word’s meaning. When used in daily verbal discourse, the term is generally understood by Indians in a highly negative fashion, referring to a range of derogatory and demeaning significances. Such meanings include, "whore," "loose woman," and specific parts of the female genitalia. In considering this social context for the use of the word "squaw," it is typically understood by Indians as a racial slur on his or her person, family, community, and/or heritage. I have never observed nor have I had it conveyed to me by an Indian consultant the understanding that the term "squaw" is a term of endearment or that it is used in a friendly manner. This is not to suggest that some whites, unaware of its derogatory meaning, occasionally use the term out of ignorance of the meaning it holds for Indians.

In a climate of civility and collaboration between the many Indian communities and the many citizens of this great state of Idaho, I urge removal of the term "squaw" and thus all that it connotes from our state’s landscape. While only in time and through education can we curb the language of the gutter, we can take action now to remove a name from our maps and thus help break the cycle perpetuating this demeaning term. No grandmother and granddaughter of this state should have to submit to the verbal insults this word brings forth. As the word "squaw" is deemed so completely inappropriate and offensive, should not the wishes of those most degraded by its continued use, the Indian, be acknowledged and respected? Should not those who have traveled the creeks, bays and lakes, valleys, buttes and peaks since time immemorial, long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark, and who continue to maintain sovereign communities within the boundaries of the state of Idaho have a vital stake in the naming of the creeks, bays and lakes, valleys, buttes and peaks we all now enjoy?

Respectfully submitted by Rodney Frey to the Office of the Governor of Idaho on 12 November 2001.

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