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Here’s why the meaning of 'squaw' is offensive to Great Barrington citizens

Bruno Cooke January 28, 2022
The Squaw Man
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

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At a virtual neighbourhood meeting in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, this week, five residents spoke in favour of changing the name of Squaw Peak Road because of the “derogatory and pejorative” meaning of the word “squaw”.

What is the meaning of the word ‘squaw’?

Merriam-Webster files the word “squaw” as offensive. Its meaning is stated as “an indigenous woman of North America”.

The word is also used offensively outside indigenous communities to mean “woman” and/or “wife” – the term is dated and disparaging. Its first known use was in 1622. In its examination of the word’s history and meaning, Indian Country Today writes: “Indigenous women say the term is offensive.”

Wiktionary agrees: “It is an ethic slur, meaning ‘woman’ or ‘wife’, especially a Native American woman. 

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Map of the proposed Olympic layout of Squaw Valley.

However, ICT also quotes anthropologist Dr Margaret Bruchac’s counter argument. She writes: “I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over.”

As is often the case with historical words, the meaning of “squaw” is likely to depend as much on who is using it as on what it says in the dictionary. Intention is important.

What is clear, however, is the etymology of “squaw” harks back, through the Algonquian Massachusett language, to the Proto-Algonquian *eθkwe·wa, meaning “(young) woman”.

When did the meaning of ‘squaw’ become an issue for residents of Great Barrington?

The Berkshire Edge writes Great Barrington resident Jeffrey Rothenberg, who lives in Squaw Peak Road, approached the Selectboard “a few months ago” with an enquiry about a name change.

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Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I really came to appreciate in recent years that the word ‘squaw’ is widely considered to be a derogatory and pejorative word,” Rothenberg said. “Especially to members of the tribal communities.”

In November 2021, interior secretary Deb Haaland (pictured above) formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term. She ordered a task force to find replacement names for “valleys, lakes, creeks and other sites on federal lands” that use the word, NPR reports.

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a news release. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage. Not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”

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How many place names are there in the US that include the word?

In Wyoming alone, according to the Casper Star Tribune, there are 43 federal places with “squaw” in the name.

Per the San Francisco Chronicle, 100 places in California carry the name. 

Across the whole of the US, CNBC writes, “squaw” appears in the names of “more than 650 federal land units”.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.