Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of the Interior, is a Native American woman. And you’d probably be smart not to refer to her as a “squaw.”
Last week, Haaland announced that the Department of Interior has formally declared the word “squaw” to be a derogatory term. The good news, I suppose, is there has so far been a limited amount of hysterics about “wokeness” or “cancel culture.”
This is a pleasant surprise because there is a shocking amount of venom aimed at indigenous people when a simple request is made like asking for a term to be changed or a team mascot to be eliminated. Often these arguments devolve into semantics about “honoring” Natives (trust me, the indigenous community does not understand how an insult is an honor) or what the word actually means.
In this case, as is pointed out in the linked article, squaw is indeed a Native term. A term from the Algonquin language, to be exact. The “it’s an Indian word” argument really is about another maddening habit of the non-Native – thinking of Native Americans as a single entity, when there are/were literally hundreds of distinct cultures within the Native American world with similarities and marked differences. An eastern woodlands culture is, for example, much different than a Pacific Northwest or Plains culture.
However, even with the Native origin, squaw was a word that originally meant one thing and was non-offensive, but quickly became a derogatory term when used by non-Natives. So in other words, a bunch of white people stole a word from a particular group that meant one thing, and then took it over and turned it into a derogatory term.
Sound familiar? Like, perhaps, the evolution of the word “woke,” which started in the Black community decades ago? How it went from being aware of what is happening in America around race, to a mocking term?
These are small gestures, really, relative to the suffering my ancestors and other Natives were put through by the American government and many Americans. It’s called “making things right.” If you truly care about unity, you would be fine with such a thing, because it’s healing.
Haaland has also announced this year that there will be investigations into the atrocities carried out at Native American boarding schools. Given the hysteria about CRT and schools, I can’t imagine how that will go over, even when the bodies are found.
Cleaning up the sins of the past is quite often messy.
The last word goes to Raye Zaragoza, a Native singer-songwriter who doesn’t want “hate to be the face of the American dream.”