humiliating, say Indian women
Carrier - Staff writer
Augusta - Rebecca Sockbeson of
Portland, a Penobscot Indian,
was only 8 years old when she was
first called a squaw,
and although she is now an
adult, she remembers the
painfully as it happened yesterday.
Socbeson was walking away from the
cafeteria line at her school
in Bangor, carrying her lunch tray and minding her
when an older non-Indian boy called
her "a dirty squaw"
and tripped her, sending her tray
clattering to the floor.
"I had never heard the word squaw
Sockbeson told a legislative committee
"but at that pivotal moment, I
knew it was hurtful."
A long list of Indian women recounted
similar experiences Friday when the
Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a
bill that would outlaw the use of
the word "squaw" in Maine
place names, while allowing its continued use
by private businesses, such as the
Squaw Mountain Resort in Greenville.
At least 25 geographic features
in seven counties would be affected by
the change, including Big Squaw
Mountain, Little Squaw Mountain,
Big Squaw Township and Little Squaw
The State House hearing, which lasted
than three hours, drew an overflow crowd.
The committee postponed a vote until
when the bill is expected to win solid
- but not unanimous - support
from the 13-member panel before
it goes to the full Legislature.
The bill was filed by Rep. Donald
Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy
representative to the Legislature. It
has been endorsed by the
Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and
Micmac tribal governments
and by the Roman Catholic Diocese of
It also has the newfound support of
Gov. Angus King,
who had previously reserved judgment
The only opposition Friday came from
government officials in the Greenville area,
who said the proposed ban would hurt
their region's economic development.
They argued that Squaw Mountain and
other places were
named by Indians or out of respect for
an assertion that drew strong protests
from Indian women.
Although several opponents of the bill
claimed to know
Indians who oppose it, none of
them showed up.
All of the Indians who testified
at the hearing supported the bill.
"As a young girl growing up on the
reservation, I was often called a
'dirty squaw', which would reduce
me to tears of pain and anger,"
said Rene Attean, a Penobscot woman
from Old Town.
"And as I grew older, I came to realize
that many of the
town boys thought "squaw"
was synonymous with sex.
I came to hate the word 'squaw"
and the people who used it."
Research conducted by the Maine Indian
a state agency that includes Indians
suggests that the word 'squaw'
originated among Indian tribes
in Massachusetts, Rhode Island
as a neutral word for woman or
It is not found in the Penobscot,
or Maliseet languages.
Over time, use of the word spread far
New England, and it developed a
Several dictionaries say the word is
used in an offensive and insulting
"I have not spoken to even one
Maliseet woman who is not
offended by the use of the word,
because whatever its origin,
it has been used to taunt, and
degrade us as women,"
said Brenda Commander,
Chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet
"One experience that is burned into my
coming home one day (as a child) and
seeing a big road
sign at the end of our road that said
When I entered my home, I found my
mother in tears,
she was so humiliated."
Supporters of the bill said
"squaw" has come to be used by non-Indians
as a synonym for prostitute and
as a shorthand way of implying that
American Indian women are inferior and
They said it is as insulting to Indian
women as the
most base racial slurs are to
Opponents, all of them non-Indians from
the Greenville area,
counted that the quest to strike
'squaw' from Maine place names
is a misguided campaign to
promote political correctness
by obliterating a harmless, even
word that is not used in a derogatory
manner by most non-Indians.
They said such a ban would have what
Greenville Town Manager
David Cota called "an adverse
impact on our area,"
because of a dozen natural features
there include 'squaw'
in their names and at least some
of them are tourist attractions.
"We're struggling economically
now," said Greenville Selectman
Sharon Libby Jones, "and if the state
imposes mandatory name changes,
then Greenville-area businesses
would effectively have to change their names too."
That focus on economic development did
not sit well with normally reserved
Rep. Donna Loring, the Penobscot
representative to the Legislature,
who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
"Do you feel guilty earning money
from a name that is abusive and
dehumanizing to native people?"
Loring asked Libby Jones.
"I don't believe that's what we're
doing," Libby Jones replied.
Cota argued that Squaw Mountain and
other natural features whose
names include that word were named by
the Indians themselves,
but Sockbeson heatedly rejected
If Maine Indians had named such
places, she asked,
why would they have used a word that
not found in any of Maine's tribal
"I challenge the white men who
came before you today and opposed
the bill to walk on to any reservation
and use the word "squaw"
and see what happens," Sockbeson
Greenville Town Manager David Cota
urges lawmakers at an Augusta hearing
Friday to allow places like Squaw
Mountain, in his town to retain the name.
He said a change could hurt economic
development because a dozen natural
features include "squaw" and
some of them are tourist attractions.
Paul Carrier can be contacted by
phone at: 207-622-7511
or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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