Is the word "squaw" an obscene word? We think it all depends on the many variations of "Obscenity."
In the Algonquin language the word squaw simply translates to mean "woman."
On the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 where Tim Giago, Suzanne Harjo and Michael Haney were guests to talk about the Washington football team's usage of the word "Redskin," Harjo said,"The word squaw is an Algonquin [sic] Indian word meaning vagina, and that'll give you an idea of what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again."
Of course the people in the audience and Oprah herself let out a big, surprised groan, Giago said and they all were stunned by what Harjo just said.
Most people now feel that this was the beginning of organized efforts to remove the word "squaw" from the name of places, etc. The word was bandied about after that and no one could really refute what Harjo had just said. Giago's Indian Country Today newspaper had a branch office in Scottsdale, Arizona at the time and the paper began to question the city of Phoenix for having named a hill in the middle of town "Squaw Peak."
As the paper researched the origin of the name its writers soon discovered that the original name of the hill was "Squaw Tit Peak" but a group of Christian ministers found the word "Tit" much too offensive so they petitioned the city to drop the "Tit" and just call it Squaw Peak." A present day writer for Indian Country Today named Vincent Schilling apparently had no inkling of the history of his own paper so when he wrote an extensive article for the newspaper about the usage of the word "squaw" he completely left out the campaign his own newspaper ran in the early 1990s to change the name of "Squaw Peak" to "Piestewa Peak" to honor Specialist Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe, who was the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving in the U. S. military. She died in the first few days of the invasion of Iraq.
A lot of other more powerful sources joined the fight and the peak was renamed "Piestewa Peak." Indian Country Today's actions in bringing about the change were soon overshadowed and that is probably why one of its writers knows nothing about his own papers history.
The staff of Native Sun News was shocked and annoyed to read a recent travel magazine that listed two places where vacationers would find peace and harmony. One was the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix and the other was the Resort at Squaw Creek located at Squaw Valley in Tahoe, California.
What was particularly annoying was that although the name of the hill had been changed the City of Phoenix still would not let go of the name, or perhaps it was the Hilton Hotel chain. By continuing to use the name it is a slap in the face to the Hopi warrior who gave her life for this country.
Perhaps the name "squaw" does not have the vulgar connotation assigned to it by Harjo, but through the centuries the name has become one associated with sluts and prostitutes or just easy prey for white men. Our test of whether one finds the name offensive or not has been to suggest that a while male walk up to an Indian woman and say, "Hey squaw!" He had better duck after that because there will be a fist flying at his head.
Perhaps Indian Country Today and other Indian publications should question the owners of the Hilton hotel chain and the folks up at Squaw Valley and find out why they are still using an archaic name that every Indian woman in America deems to be an insult.
(The Editorial Board of Native Sun News can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)