Editorial Note: The Use of the Word Squaw
The word squaw in English is generally considered by many Native people across North America as offensive, racist, and misogynistic. However, its use is accepted by some as an empowering term.
The word's route into modern linguistic consciousness follows from two sources. The prevailing interpretation posits that in the Mohawk language, the word ojiskwa’, which translates to "female sexual parts," was corrupted by French Canadian and English speakers over time to become a derogatory term and eventually, a racial slur.
An alternative viewpoint finds that in Algonquian languages, there is no historical word squaw, rather it appears as a morpheme traditionally meaning "the totality of being female, not just the female anatomy." According to Abenaki scholar Marge Bruchac, the insult is not in the original term but in its usage.
"Traditional Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and English," she says, "still say words like ‘nidobaskwa’=a female friend, ‘manigebeskwa’=woman of the woods, or ‘Squaw Sachem’=female chief. When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address ‘nuncksquassis’=‘little woman baby’.”
Instead of having the term be overtaken by a weaponized colonial construction as an insult, Bruchac advocates for reclaiming squaw's original meaning as a term of honor and respect towards women.
...When I hear it spoken by Native peoples, in its proper context, I hear the
voices of the ancestors. I am reminded of powerful grandmothers who
nurtured our people and fed the strangers, of proud women chiefs who stood
up against them, and of mothers and daughters and sisters who still stand
here today. In their honor I demand that our language, and our women, and
our history, be treated with respect...
This approach, however, may be a minority perspective, for those who advocate the disuse of the word maintain that "the degrading usage is now too long, and too painful, for it to ever take on a positive meaning among Indigenous women or Indigenous communities as a whole."
Marge Bruchac, Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors, H-Net Online, December 1, 1999, https://lists.h-net.org/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-amindian&mont....
Vincent Schilling, "The Word Squaw: Offensive or Not?," Indian Country Today, March 23, 1017, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/the-word-squaw-offensive-or-not-A....