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Squaw…. It's Dehumanizing Effect and Origins

Guest Commentary By Passamaquoddy
Representative, Donald Soctomah
the People's Voice ~ January 1, 1999

Copyright © 2000 Soctomah
All Rights Reserved

As we enter a new millennium, I have hope for a better relationship, between the Native population and the State of Maine. In order for us to achieve this improved relationship, we must end 400 years of hurt and discrimination. We must learn to live together peacefully, by honoring and respecting each other. This hope was the motivating factor, when introducing legislation, that would put an end to the use of a demoralizing and dehumanizing term within the State of Maine. This bill would remove the word Squaw from place names within the State. This is not an issue of political correctness. It is about basic human decency and respect for one's fellow citizens. This Bill seeks to protect an under-represented group within the state, Native women. Our women, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, are all entitled to protection against basic human rights violations, such as the use of demoralizing language. The driving force behind this Bill is hundreds of Native women, who are continually offended by the use of this slang word. The Thesaurus of Slang identifies the term Squaw as a synonym for prostitute, harlot, hussy and floozy. The Dictionary identifies this word as one that is used to offend Native females.

In order to understand the true origins of this word, we need to look at the history of the relationship, between Native people and the early European settlers. Some settlers were unable to pronounce the correct word used for women and others refused to accept Native women as humans, so they chose to use a slang version of the correct word. The women weren't the only ones being referred to using dehumanizing words, Native men were also referred to as "Bucks", as a hunter refers to a male deer. The relations between the early settlers and the Natives quickly turned to warfare. It was during this time period (1650) when this corrupted word started being used to demoralize the Native population. In addition to the physical violence that erupted, came an equally destructive war of words. This was done in an attempt to demoralize the opponent, in this case the Indian people. For the soldiers it was easier to dehumanize people who you may have to kill. This tactic is still used in warfare around the world. As the line of settlements advanced, the Iroquois Nations were also seen as being in the way of the settlers and war broke out with them. During this time the term Squaw was also used as a corruption of a longer native word otsikwaw, which referred to a female body part. The early fur trappers used the Squaw word to imply the crudest sexual connotations. The war continued in New England for 150 years, but the war of the words has continued for 400 years. The word became ingrained in the English language.

To the general public, after generations of exposure, the Squaw word was seen as a neutral word, but to Native females this word continues to be a slanderous attack against them and their culture. Incidents occur more often near the Native communities, where the clash between cultures still exists. When Native people name a geographic feature, such as a river or a mountain, the terms are used to describe a specific location. For the ease of the traveler or to denote it's spiritual significance. The name of the Kennebec river describes the contours of the river. Mount Kathadin was named to signify the spirits of the mountain and it’s geography.

The term Squaw was not originally used for place names, because the word did not exist before the 1600's. It is not a linguists definition of the original Native word that is of concern. It is the way that the term has been used to define Native women in it's current context. Through communication and education we can rid this State of offensive, derogatory words, so that Native women will have the right to define themselves. We need to grow and understand that the use of the term Squaw shows a lack of compassion for human beings. It is hard for the general population to imagine how hurtful a word can be unless it is directed at them, their culture or racial background. Representative Gerald Talbot of Portland worked hard in 1974, to remove the "N…….word" from place names in Maine. He had to convince other Representatives how hurtful and hateful this word is to Maine citizens and its visitors. During that floor debate the offensiveness of the word Squaw was questioned and several Representatives stated, that to the Maine Native population, it was offensive. So this is not a new issue to Maine, it is an issue 400 years old that need to be put to an end.

Nationally, three other states have removed the word Squaw from place names. In North Carolina the US Justice Department was involved in the removal of the word Squaw from a school system in March 1999. There is no other word, used today, which hurts Native women, as much as the word Squaw. It has been used as a slanderous assault in hate crimes. Last year a Native woman was brutally assaulted by 2 men, who continually yelled "you dirty Squaw", as they were kicking her. In 1998, there was a High school fight that eventually turned into a racial incident. Native girls were called Squaws, this resulted in death threats being written on the walls. Being a Native man and the father of 7 daughters, I do not want to see my daughters, or anyone else's daughter, have to carry verbal scars for the rest of their lives.

This Bill sends, with such great effectiveness, a good will message of understanding, to the Native people of this State. That the State of Maine will stop sanctioning the use of offensive words, that dehumanize and exploit the Native people. The Native people and the Native communities of Maine, ask for the passage of this Bill. To end the perpetuation of dehumanizing language that has been used to define our women. It is never an aggressive act for a people to exercise their right to self determination. It is an intrinsic right that is woven into the fiber of values that this country was supposed to have been founded upon.

The following Cheyenne Proverb summarizes the point of this Bill concisely: "A Nation is never conquered, until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” Every time this term is used the hearts of our women take another blow.

Contact Donald Soctomah by
e-mail: soctomah@nemaine.com

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