Defining 'Squaw'

squaw . . . noun / Etymology: Massachuset squa, ussqua woman / Date: 1634 1 often offensive : an American Indian woman 2 usually disparaging: WOMAN, WIFE

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A Good Word Goes Bad

The only written account of the Pilgrims√≠ disastrous first two years at Massachusetts Bay (1620-1622) contains just two Indian words, sachem, chief, and squaw, woman.1 Some twenty years later Roger Williams, the founder of the settlement of Providence and the colony of Rhode Island, compiled a word list of the local Narragansett Indians, who spoke a dialect of the Algonquian family of aboriginal languages.2 He recorded that the word squaw meant "woman," and functioned in compound words to denote "female," as in squasese–√¨little girl,√Æ kihtucksquaw–√¨a marriageable virgin,√Æ keegsquaw–"virgin or maid," and segousquaw–"widow."

Poor Fish

En route home, on April 17, 1806, Meriwether Lewis reported that "the inhabitants of the rapids [the Cascades of the Columbia] at this time take . . . considerable quantities of a small indifferent mullet on which they principally subsist. I have seen none except dryed fish of the last season in the possession of the people above that place." Elliott Coues, in his edition of Nicholas Biddle's 1814 version of the Journals, speculated that Lewis was referring to the fish identified in 1836 as Ptychocheilus ("floppy lip") oregonensis ("of Oregon.") Richardson, a new species in the icthyology of the time. In time it gained several common names, including Columbia River dace, bigmouth minnow, and, around 1881, the most common of all, squawfish. The derogatory overtone was obvious to any fisherman: Itís a squaw's fish because nobody else would eat its soft, bony flesh. Like an Indian woman, it's disposable.

In 1998, impelled by the acceleration of linguistic cleansing, a committee of the American Fisheries Society reconsidered the name "squawfish" pursuant to "Principle 9: Names should not violate the tenets of good taste." While they asserted that "whether or not the term (when used with the fish) was first or ever intended to be derogatory to Native American women is uncertain and perhaps unlikely," the committee agreed upon "northern pikeminnow."4 Its habitat is indeed northern–lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams on the Pacific slope of North America from British Columbia to northern California. And it does have a long snout like the pike. But it belongs to the minnow family (Cyprinidae), not the pike family (Esox lucius, "pike-pike"). Pike have teeth in their jaws; minnows have teeth in their throats.

There's more. In the Columbia and Snake River drainages, grownup northern squawfish, up to two feet long and 7 or 8 pounds heavy, have consumed millions of young salmon and steelhead fish ("smolts"), so in 1990 the Bonneville Power Administration announced a bounty of $4 to $6 per long, pike-like head. (The budget for the year 2000 was $4.4 million.)

By 1998 more than 1.2 million squawfish had been killed, with an estimated reduction of predation on young salmonids of 38 percent. Unfortunately for the onomastically rehabilitated squawfish, the future of the preferred salmonid population still remains uncertain.

All those northern ìpikeminnows,î Lewis's "small indifferent mullet," their common name given, then sullied, then taken away by monstrous two-legged fish, may have died in vain.

Poor fish.

Noah Webster√≠s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (New Haven, Connecticut, 1806) was the most innovative–and at 40,600 words the largest–dictionary published in the United States up to that time. Most notably, it contained 5,000 American expressions conspicuously absent from standard British dictionaries. But it did not contain the word squaw; nor did his second and even larger work, The American Dictionary of the English Language (New York, 1828), even though his good friend, the Columbia College scientist Samuel Latham Mitchill, encouraged him to include it because it seemed to have become naturalized in everyday speech as an honorific reference to any Indian woman.

The 1853 edition of Webster's defined it: "Among some tribes of American Indians, a female, or wife," and subsequent definitions essentially reiterated the same thing. A century later, however, Webster√≠s New World Dictionary of 1951 added a second definition: "any women–chiefly humorous." The 1967 Collegiate reflected a change for the worse, the second definition reading "woman, wife–usually used disparagingly."

By 1992 the worst was right up front. Reflecting the descent of the word's common use, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language called it "Offensive. 1. A Native American woman, especially a wife," and by extension, any woman or wife. The word's devolution from honorific "purr word" to smutchy "snarl word" was complete.

Place Names

In the 1980s a nationwide movement arose to extirpate squaw from general use, because of its worst connotations. The central strategy has been to persuade state legislatures and responsible private and governmental agencies to substitute other words for it in place names and mascot banners. That's a major undertaking, for there were (as of November 2000) 929 place names in thirty-six of the United States consisting of, or containing, the word squaw. Oregon had the most, at 148, followed by California at 109, and so on down to Tennessee with only two. Several states have taken positive steps to replace them with less offensive terms.

Words come and go like the wind, sometimes in a chill breeze, sometimes in a tempest. Noah Webster himself summarily rejected between two thousand and three thousand words he judged to be obscene or archaic, which the Englishman Samuel Johnson had listed in his benchmark Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755). A few of the obscenities that were never dropped from street speech found their way back into Websterian notice late in the 20th Century.

Empirical evidence suggests that the word squaw has been absent from common American speech for many decades, except in place names. So when we have expunged squaw from all place names it will be a dead word–except among living Algonquian-speaking people with first rights to it.

Meanwhile, we would do the Indian people among us due honor by remembering that since 1620 the English language as spoken in America has been enriched by more than 1,100 Native American loanwords.3 For starters, what else could we call a squash, a chipmunk, or a possum?

In the Journals

From the time Sacagawea√≠s husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, signed on with the Corps of Discovery in February of 1805, both of the captains referred to his young wife as a squaw, usually spelling it with a post-vocalic /r/–"Squar." But by the end of April Lewis was consistently using woman and wife, perhaps having observed that the eastern Indian word for woman was simply meaningless among the Mandan and Hidatsa villagers, where the correct words would have been, respectively, mihe and wea–as in Sakakawea, meaning "bird woman." Once he used her given Indian name, spelling it Sahcargarmeah.

Clark, Gass, Ordway and Whitehouse continued to write "squar" occasionally in references to her, but it is impossible to find any trace of disrespect or disparagement, unless we read them with 21st-century prejudices in mind. Remember that Clark ultimately saw to the schooling of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau in St. Louis, not from disparagement or mistrust of either of the parents, but out of respect, gratitude, and friendship toward them, and his love for the child. (See "My Boy Pomp: About that Name.")


1. Charles L. Cutler, O Brave New Words: Native American Loanwords in Current English (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 34.

2. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (London, 1643; reprint, with an introduction by Howard M. Chapin, Providence: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee, Inc., 1936).

3. Cutler, 154-216.

4. A full discussion will be found at http://www.fisheries.org/fisheries/misc/namecha.htm/ (accessed 11/00)