The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Noting new nuances of Native American names

WHAT'S in a name? Power and politics, that's what! One evening last week my attention was drawn to a radio news story about place-names in Maine. According to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," a Native American representative to the Maine legislature is sponsoring a bill that would change the names of rivers, lakes and mountains that include the word "squaw". This story caught my attention because it is just the kind of language issue that the general public often considers trivial (or worse), but which socio-linguists, like myself, consider crucial.

According to the news story, the Passamaquoddy Nation's representative in the Maine legislature wants to change dozens of place-names, such as "Big Squaw Mountain," because the word "squaw" is highly offensive to Native Americans. To many Native Americans, the story reported, "squaw" means a 'woman of ill repute' and constitutes "the worst kind of insult."

Opponents of the bill are quoted making three basic arguments. First, "squaw" is not an insult. In the words of one Maine resident, "We always thought of the word 'squaw' as something that was honorable." Second, even if "squaw" is insulting, it is no more so than derogatory words for other ethnic groups, like "wop" for Italians, which have not been legislated against. And third, opponents ultimately point out that changing place-names will cost money.

I have no response to those who reject a name change because it will be expensive. I personally would vote to spend such money, but if others would not -- that's their business. On the other hand, I strongly object to those who use claims about language to mask the nature of their actions and opinions.

The history of the use of "squaw" in English clearly shows it to be derogatory. Originally borrowed from an Amerindian language, in which it simply meant 'woman,' "squaw" underwent pejoration in the 1800s. Pejoration is a common linguistic process, in which relatively bland words take on increasingly negative meanings as the language changes. "Silly," for example, has gone from meaning 'helpless' to meaning 'frivolous.' "Hussy" now means 'immoral woman,' whereas it used to mean 'housewife.' For "squaw," the Oxford English Dictionary shows non-pejorative uses from 1634, but highly pejorative uses dating from 1807.

Moreover, words (and symbols) associated with Native Americans are not like other derogatory words in common (if regrettable) use in American speech and writing. Insulting words for Jews, or Italians, or Irish may occur in all sorts of private contexts, but when they emerge into public discourse they are quickly silenced. Words like "squaw," in contrast, adorn our most official proclamations -- maps, government documents, etc.

As I write these words, the Titans and the Rams are playing in the Super Bowl, and I cannot help but think of sports-team mascots as an example of this latter point. A systematic look at the names of NFL teams reveals an awkward disparity: Among ethnic, religious, or racial groups in America, only Native Americans appear as team mascots.

NFL teams have either animal (Bengals, Dolphins, Panthers, Jaguars, etc.), or human mascots. (The Jets are an exception). Some of the human team names refer to mythical people, such as Titans or Giants. Other team names refer to people or groups having exalted historical associations with the team's home city. The Patriots of New England, and the Bills of Buffalo are two examples. Some teams -- such as the Buccaneers of Tampa Bay and the Raiders of Oakland -- may be named after groups we view as something less than noble, but few Americans are identified as children of pirates.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins stand out as teams with symbols that are both derogatory and tightly linked to a current, present ethnic group. The Vikings of Minnesota (where many people claim Scandinavian heritage) would constitute a similar case, except that "Viking" refers to a long-ago time. Three teams -- the Steelers, Packers and Cowboys -- are named after current occupational groups, and these present some parallels to the Native American case, but so far as I know their representatives have yet to complain.

And ultimately that is the point. Names that become offensive to certain people should be changed. There is nothing 'natural' about place-names -- even if the names of places we call home always seem naturally named. When I was young, growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I heard that some national magazine had named the next suburb over the 'weirdest town name in the country.' I was outraged! 'There's nothing funny about Pepper Pike,' I thought, 'What else could one call it?'

Naming (like all language use) is political: It is a social action that involves strategies and consequences. While present-day attempts at renaming are easily seen as "political," it is crucial to view earlier namings in the same way. Calling a place "Big Squaw Mountain" was just as strategic and consequential as is renaming it now. Unfortunately, public debate often glosses over the politics of earlier namings.

(Daniel Lefkowitz is an assistant professor of anthropology.)


Latest Podcast

Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.