Sunday, February 24, 2008


The crossword puzzle in yesterday's Washington Post had this clue:

Native American infant

Course, there were seven spaces for the word, and, most people would say "papoose" and happily fill in the boxes. Their answer would be correct, but let's take a minute to think about the word.

"Papoose" is kind of like "squaw." Both words are used as though every Native nation in what is now called the United States of America, and in Canada, too, called their women "squaws" and their babies "papooses."

In the early pages of Little House on the Prairie Pa tells Laura that she'll see a papoose when they get to Indian Territory. And, at the end of the book, as Laura watches the Indians pass by their house, she sees one and cries out "I want it!" Like that baby is a toy? Something she could have?!

In fact, both words are rooted in a Native language, but there are hundreds of tribal nations, and hundreds of tribal languages. We don't all speak the same language.

Here's info about papoose, provided by the Oxford dictionary:

1. offensive a young North American Indian child

I don't think it is offensive.  It just isn't used right. Same thing with "squaw".* The thing for all of us to do is understand that "Native American" and "American Indian" lead us to think that all Indians are alike and speak the same language, dress alike, etc. If we move past that idea to think about a specific tribal nation, we're in a completely different place. What is the Navajo word for baby? What is the Cherokee word for baby? What is the Hopi word for baby? See what I mean?


Rob said...

Good catch, Debbie.

Also, "papoose" is a Narragansett word. Narragansett mothers may have used the word, but Native mothers from hundreds of other tribes didn't. They used their own words for "infant."

The effect of using "papoose" for all Native infants is to homogenize hundreds of tribes into one. The same problem occurs with words like chief, brave, and squaw. If these words are universally applicable, then all Native cultures are the same.

kittens not kids said...

Thanks for this Debbie, and thanks to Rob for identifying the language "papoose" belongs to - which was my first question after reading Debbie's post.

I must admit that I have always liked the word "papoose" (I think I like words with multiple "p"s), and I feel relieved to know the correct source/usage of the word (not, I should add, that I ever DO use it).

thanks again for the work you do, Debbie. It's been very valuable to me in my teaching and in my own personal ways of thinking and reading.

Durango Mendoza said...

I would have to say that it is offensive unless is is said by a Narragansett person to another Narragansett person. The word "boy" on the other hand is not offense unless it is used to designate an African-American man. Papoose is not terribly offensive in the scheme of things but is as Rob commented when it is used " homogenize...." I think "squaw" is always offensive.

knorman said...

Interesting - coming from UK I've only ever come across the word used to mean baby carrier. Is it specified in Little House which meaning Ingalls are referring to? Would make more sense in the quote to mean a carrier surely , unless Laura is feeling broody.

Debbie Reese said...

She wants the child, not the carrier.

Sheena K said...

Most little girls seeing a baby for the first time think them a "doll" baby and want it or one. Relax.
I got here wondering what tribes actually used the word papoose because that was my mother's name for me when I was born. Unexpectedly dark I had all my g grand mother's features and coloring. Grew out of most of it by age 8.