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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Squaw

Q: Why is the word "squaw" so offensive? Does it mean woman, wife, prostitute, or vagina?
A: None of the above. "Squaw" is not an Indian word. It was probably invented by European colonists who could not pronounce a longer Indian word. In the Algonquian languages, which were spoken on the East Coast and were the first to be encountered by Europeans, many feminine nouns end in a suffix with a "kw" or "skw" sound. For example, in Meskwaki-Sauk, Thakiwakwe means a Sauk (Thakiwa) woman; in Micmac, muwineskw means a female bear (muwin); and in the Abenaki language, Cimakskwa means Mrs. Cimak. If the Europeans thought that meant "skwa" or "kwe" was the word for "woman," though, they made a mistake. It's just a suffix, like the English suffix "-ess" in "princess" or "seamstress." By itself, "squaw" means nothing in any living Algonquian language and no Indian speaker would ever use it to refer to herself, any more than an English woman would refer to herself as an "ess." (The words for 'woman' in the three languages listed above are ihkwewa, epit, and behanem, incidentally.)

So were the Europeans originally trying to use their pidgin word "squaw" to refer to Indian women, wives, prostitutes, vaginas, or seamstresses for that matter? No one will ever know for sure, because there are Algonquian words ending in "-squa" or "-qua" referring to all these things. The likeliest thing is that those original colonists were not being insulting and were just trying and failing to use an Indian word for "woman." It is hard to learn another language and most of the early European immigrants had never done it before. However, since then the word has been used in a very racist and sexually abusive way, so it definitely has negative implications now. Like the "n-word," the word "squaw" should be retired from public use. It is also not an Indian word and no Indians ever use it among themselves.

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