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Thoughts on Indian Images, Names, and Respect

by Marge Bruchac, Northampton, MA (December, 1999)


When people think of Native American Indians these days, they often think of issues in the news - mascots, land claims, casinos, repatriation, place names, etc. - areas of contact and conflict between whites and Indians, discussed in a language that implies vanishing: "last of a tribe," "loss of tradition," "mixed-blood descendants." What too few modern Americans realize is that indigenous survival has always been a balancing act - between past and present, between loss and recovery, between new influences and old traditions. Although the European invasion is only a small part of our long history, it has proved to be the most difficult challenge of all.

I would like to offer a few thoughts on four current issues: the phrase "Native American," the word "squaw," Indian place names, and the use of Indian mascots in New England. I advise the following: 1) recognize that these issues are complicated 2) make no quick judgements 3) proceed with respect for indigenous people, culture, and traditions 4) remember whose traditional homelands we are living in, and act accordingly.

Renaming the Indian

The phrase "Native American," applied to indigenous Americans, came into popular usage in the 1960s, to replace the sometimes pejorative "Indian." But there’s a long-standing history of previous use: the first people to label themselves "Native Americans" were actually white Anglo-Saxon Protestants born in America instead of abroad. In the mid-19th century they formed the "Native American Movement," aimed at shipping blacks back to Africa, Irish back to Ireland, and Indians to reservations out west. The 1837 Greenfield Gazette & Mercury (vol. 7 no. 534) echoes familiar fears today: "Foreigners. . . are a dangerous sect - they have no interests coincident with ours. . . If we admit them to share the privileges of our citizen soldiers, we must, of course, admit them to the ballot box; and the mischiefs resulting from this cannot be magnified by any language, however strong. American citizens ought to control and govern American institutions. . . our institutions are of Native American birth and growth, and let them remain under Native American culture, or they will droop, and wither, and die." The writer is discussing the threat of Irish volunteers in the Boston Militia.

Then there’s the political affiliation: the term implies that Indians are now citizens of a colonialist power that conquered and divided the original Indian nations. Offering, and forcing, citizenry was crucial to divesting tribes of land and power. And there’s the class divide: the term "Native American" also distinguished English colonists from later white immigrants, and persisted into the 1970s among the Yankee aristocracy.

The Taino and Arawak people, who met Columbus, see it like this: "India" as a nation-state did not exist in 1492, despite Columbus’ mistake. Roberto Mucaro Borrero, a Boriken Taino historian, notes that his people regard the Spanish "in Dios," meaning "in God," like "Indian," as merely European shorthand for "indigenous peoples."

The original peoples of the "Americas" understand that "Indian" is a word from a foreign language, just like "first nations" or "indigenous." They call their world "Indian Country," but the bottom line is for outsiders to learn, and respect, how people choose to define themselves. Whenever possible, refer to tribal or regional names, Abenaki, Haudenosaunee, Mik’maq, or negotiate a term of common understanding. The term "Algonkian," for example, includes the New England tribes, Cherokee, and Great Lakes peoples, among others. For this article, I will also use "Indian," "Native" and "indigenous," where generic terms are needed.

Squaw is an Algonkian Indian Word

There’s been a lot of press lately over the word "squaw," with one important subtlety missing from the discussion: Squaw is NOT an English word. It IS a phonetic rendering of an Algonkian word that does NOT translate, as some people have suggested, to "a woman’s private parts." In the contact era the word "squaw," as "esqua," "squa," "skwa," "skwe" or other variants, meant the totality of being female, not a body part, but a state of being that could be modified to be more specific, ie: nidobaskwa = female friend, nunksqua = girl, Squaw Sachem = woman chief, awassosquaw = bear woman, etc. The spelling varied depending on how European writers heard the word, but the meaning was universal among Algonkian peoples who taught this word to the colonists, along with names for people, birds, fish, animals, medicines, activities, and places. Women’s medicinal plants were described in English as "squaw vine" and "squaw root," with no insult implied. Native people still use the word today. Princess Red Wing, Narragansett elder, would sing "Squaws have gathered the strawberries" when she told the Strawberry Thansgiving story.

Some activists say "squaw" is so obscene that it should be banned from use altogether. When "squaw" was exported to western tribes who didn’t speak Algonkian languages, they heard it used in an insulting manner, but the insult was in the usage, not in the original word. Banning indigenous words discriminates against Native languages - should we ban "wampum," or "sachem," or "pappoose?" If we banned everything the Europeans misused, we would be left with nothing.

Let me tell you a story. A revered New England Algonkian elder gave her granddaughter a traditional name that ended in "-skwa." That poor girl came home from school in tears one day, asking, "Why did you name me such a horrible name? All my teachers told me it's a dirty word." When our languages are perceived as dirty words, we and our grandchildren are in grave danger of losing our self-respect and our culture.

Banning the word will not erase the past, and will only give the oppressors the power to define our language. If we accept the slander, and internalize the insult, we discredit our female ancestors who felt no shame at hearing the word spoken. Any word can hurt when used as a weapon. What about all the words from other American Indian languages? Are we to be condemned to speaking only the "King's English?"

I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over. There are times and places where it is necessary to distinguish a woman from a man, and English is problematic as well, since "man" is the root form and "woman" a modifier. But I identify myself as a "woman" despite the fact that even that word has been slanderously used by those who think that women are less intelligent, strong, or capable than men.

We must not become so brainwashed by late 20th century definitions that we allow a neutral, descriptive word to be banned. . . or misused. In removing the insult, we have to be careful not to twist and insult our own history and traditions. The "Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women" in Edmonton, Alberta has reclaimed "esquao," the northern linguistic equivalent of "squaw" - and declared that it will no longer be tolerated as an insult, but will instead be recognized as a term of honor and respect. When I hear the word "squaw" spoken in the proper context, I hear the proud voices of the female ancestors who welcomed the strangers, and wonder how long it will take before the newcomers learn how to behave.

[See the complete editorial at Nativeweb. IAAW site is at IAAW]

Place Names

Where words like "Indian" or "chief" or "squaw" occur in place names, they usually reference some memorable person or event. In Maine, for example, "Indian Island" is where the Penobscot people settled, "Orono" is named after Chief Joseph Orono," "Big Squaw" and "Little Squaw" are two sister mountains, and "White Squaw Island" is named after a woman whose father was a Jesuit priest. Many place names recalled ancient stories or traditional activities. Without a very good understanding of history, it is a mistake to erase the lives, stories, and voices of the people whose presence was acknowledged by the original naming.

"White Squaw" herself, and her sons, used the name as a family name. Louis Annance, descendant of a late 18th century Abenaki guide to Henry Thoreau, notes: "My Great Grandfather Louis Annance . . .was an educated man, having spent some time at Moor's in Hanover [which became Dartmouth College]. He could converse with anyone on most any subject and spoke at least 3 languages. On several occasions, he guided and had long personal talks with people in high political places including governors of this state. At Moosehead Lake there are two mountains named Big Squaw and Little Squaw. These names were in place during Old Louis' time there. These names must not have been offensive to my family at that time or someone would have surely mentioned it." [Read about Louis Annance here]

Bowing to pressure from outside activists and local tribal representatives, the Maine State Legislature has agreed to consider a bill to change the names of all the places that include the word "squaw": Squaw Mountain, White Squaw Island, Little Squaw, etc. How far should this kind of historical revisionism go? Should we change "Indian Island," "Orono," "Connecticut" and "Massachusetts" while we’re at it? Some names - like "Squaw Valley Resort" - are obviously inappropriate commercial usage, but most were named by local Indians to preserve traditional stories or remember particular people.

A more useful resolution might be one that acknowledges the imprint of indigenous people and languages on the American landscape, recognizes the contemporary presence of Native peoples in their traditional homelands, distinguishes between traditional and commercial uses, and empowers Native people to dictate appropriate usage of indigenous language without arbitrarily rewriting history in the process.

Indian Images as Mascots in New England

The issue of Indian mascots, statues and images in non-Indian communities is complicated. Some images are clearly racist and/or romanticized. Other images and place names support the historic presence of tribal nations who have yet to be recognized by the federal government. New England Indians are grateful for historically accurate statues and monuments, but that doesn’t mean they want to see a warrior on the floor of the school gymnasium.

Most of the current school mascots were created in the 20th century, in response to the imagined absence of indigenous peoples, and the mythical physical prowess of the Indian warrior. The images - feather headdress, big hooked nose, fringed leggings, war spear, etc. - came straight out of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and western movies. Every northeastern town that adopted such an image also had another subtext: remembering some local history of a battle during King Philip's War or the French & Indian Wars. European soldiers followed the military practice of symbolically "eating the enemy," stealing his power by turning him into a caricature that the white victors could mock. Think about political cartoons depicting Japanese and Germans. And take a look at the Massachusetts state seal sometime - it shows an Indian chief under a raised sword, with the logo: "Ense petit placidum sub Libertate Quietum" = "Peace and Liberty - under the Sword."

In a few instances, like the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, the mascot reflects a mutual, respectful arrangement between the tribe and the town. There are also Indian schools that choose to use mascots to honor their ancestors. The "Cleveland Indians" baseball team was called the "Cleveland Spyders" until the great Louis Sockalexis, a Maine Penobscot Indian, played for them, and the name was changed to honor him. But somewhere along the line, the team managers forgot the history and came up with a hideously disrespectful mascot. In that context, the mascot should go, but Louis Sockalexis' memory should not.

If, as so many towns claim, their intention is to honor American Indian people, they should consider that no nation in the world considers ugly cartoons, stereotypes, or misrepresentation of people, history, language, names and/or culture to be a form of "honoring." If a school really wants to honor "Indians," then get rid of the mascots that insult Native peoples, and replace them with something non-racial and non-Indian, like animals, birds, or generic terms.

If a town really wants to honor local Indian history, then learn the history, support federal and state recognition for all the Algonkian peoples (not just the ones with casinos), guarantee access to basic food, housing, education, and medical needs, bring the truth about eugenics out into the open, invite Native people into your communities, workplaces, governments, and classrooms as equal citizens, and educate schoolchildren about how New England was carved out of indigenous territory without consent. Communities can also consider creating more fitting monuments - like wildlife, wetlands, river, and forest preserves, saving critical areas from development, and creating zones for subsistence hunting and fishing.

The Abenaki, and all the Algonkian peoples of what is now called "New England" are still here, and we will no longer tolerate the abuse of our history, our language, our ancestors' memories, our land, and our families. All we ask is recognition for our survival, respect for our ancestors, a safe home, and a legacy for our children.

Wlioni, kitawa, nidoba, nidobaskwa. Thank you for listening, my friends.

Marge Bruchac




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