Monday, October 22, 2007

The word "squaw" in SIGN OF THE BEAVER

The word "squaw" is commonly used in place of the word "woman" in historical fiction for children. I wonder if its entrance during childhood, during formative years, is what makes adults of today think it is an appropriate or acceptable word to use today?

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?
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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Debbie, I think the answer to the teacher's question-- What do we call them if we can't call them 'squaws'? -- is 'Human Beings.'

Debbie Stanton said...

I completely agree with you. By deleting the book from curriculum we are short changing our students and censoring needlessly, but by ignoring the word and hoping it "goes away and doesn't offend anyone" we are doing the same thing. The only solution is to plan a dialogue based on the word, and bring in historically accurate sources to discuss it. Really, every literature teacher from K through 12th grade could have an entire unit based on word use as it relates to race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. It is the only way to help create critical thinkers in our classrooms!
*Debbie Stanton*
Youth Services Librarian
Kalona Public Library

Carol Baumeister, Plattsburgh Public Library said...

"what do we call you native american women" how about native american women? or women? I think there is a deeply felt impression in America that a certain type of language to "talk" or think or write about Indians, like a foreign language, must be used.

Anonymous said...

Debbie Stanton, I see what you are saying, however, I think there is a point where you don't continue to use the word, even in teaching about (improper) use of the word. By analogy, would you choose and then discuss books that called people "Kike", "Yid", "Spic", "Chink", at the 4th grade level (which is more or less the age and grade that Sign of the Beaver is for)? I can see having a discussion and comparison of that as a lesson for older kids, but I think at this level, their thinking is still too concrete for a full discussion and it is best to use other books for literature instruction. I've taught grades 3, 4 & 5 for over 10 years, so I think I have a handle on kids' thought processes. Middle or high school as a comparative study for combined literature and social studies or social psychology possibly. But not as reading instruction for elementary school. I'm not saying to avoid discussion of that sort by any means at the elementary level - saying that in my opinion reading of this book for reading instruction at the elementary level would not be the way to go.

Debbie Stanton said...

"I think there is a point where you don't continue to use the word, even in teaching about (improper) use of the word"

This is a very good point. I suppose I did not mean that Kindergarten teachers should bring these derogatory words into their classrooms. However, as children learn about language, they should also learn about its potential abuse, even at a young age. A lesson could be planned to talk about what words are, and how word choices sometimes hurt those around us. It is very important that everyone who uses language, even the very young, learn about its power.
Thank you for your comments,
*Debbie*

Mindy said...

"I think there is a point where you don't continue to use the word, even in teaching about (improper) use of the word."

I agree with you; I don’t think we should go looking for literature that uses these types of words. However, I don’t think we should discard literature that may be a little inaccurate, but, for the most part, could be used in a very positive way either. The book is too easy for older children, so really the question is to teach from it anyway with discussion about the inaccuracies, or not to teach it at all.

I think the flaws in The Sign of the Beaver actually provide us with an opportunity to have an open discussion about the accuracy and validity in historical fiction novels. I think the earlier children understand that American Indians are still around (because, let’s face it, the way they are portrayed in books, movies, even textbooks, it seems like they are a people of the past) and still have strong feelings about derogatory terms and the way their culture is represented, the better.

Karly said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I am reading The Sign of the Beaver right now and, realizing it was not written either by a Native or from a Native's perspective, began wondering if it is acceptable or not. Your comments are very helpful.