A recent editorial in Indian Country Today describes the modern day use of the word. A small town in Maine is deeply embroiled in a struggle over the word. Insensitivity abounds. The town is near the Penobscot Nation. Tribal members attend city meetings to discuss the issue. Here's an excerpt from the editorial:
One woman, who is a teacher, asked me, "What do we call you Native American Indian women if we can't call you [squaw]?"
That question is loaded, and it prompts me to ask all of you who work with children's books---writers, teachers, librarians---what role might the use of the word in children's historical fiction play in the way that teacher responded to the Native woman?
Let's look at the award winning Sign of the Beaver. Remember---the author of the book and the perspective in the book are not Native. The main character is a white boy named Matt. He meets a Native boy named Attean. This isn't Attean's story. It is Matt's story. According to Amazon's nifty "search inside this book" option, the word 'squaw' appears on 8 pages.
The characters who use the word 'squaw' are Native.
- In his spoken words, Attean is scornful of women and their work. That work includes care of the garden (weeding) and preparing a bear Attean has killed.
- A Native girl also uses the word. She says "Attean think squaw girl not good for much"
I doubt that Attean would have the sentiments he has about women, especially women who are his elders. I don't think he would be scornful of them. Moreover, I don't think he would use the word "squaw" at all. If we are considering accuracy of his speech, he'd probably use the word his people would use for women in their language. If you're interested in the Penobscot language, take a look at their website.
In contrast, Matt uses the word 'woman.' The word "woman" appears on seven pages in the book, in Matt's thoughts as we read what he thinks when he sees Native women. He doesn't think "squaw" when he sees them. He thinks "woman." He does think the word 'squaw' as he does his chores, after hearing Attean use it.
Ironically, Sign of the Beaver is set in Maine.
We obviously can't say that any children's book is responsible for the views espoused by the teacher quoted in the Indian Country Today editorial, but I do think children's books and the work we do with them in the classroom setting makes a difference.
Do we affirm misrepresentation and misinformation by failing to engage students in a critical discussion of words like 'squaw' when we read books like Sign of the Beaver? If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know my answer is YES. You know that I think parents, teachers, and librarians must actively engage our children and students in these discussion.
What do you think?