Sunday, February 24, 2008

Papoose?

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?

*Update, December 22, 2015
Taking a moment to say a bit more about "squaw." There are efforts to reclaim the word. See Margaret Bruchac's essay. I don't think it can be reclaimed.