Hurtful Words


'Squaw' humiliating, say Indian women

Portland Press Herald

January 29, 2000

by Paul 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

incident as 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 own business,

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 before,"

Sockbeson told a legislative committee Friday,

"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 Township.

The State House hearing, which lasted more

than three hours, drew an overflow crowd.


The committee postponed a vote until next week,

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 Portland.

It also has the newfound support of Gov. Angus King,

who had previously reserved judgment on it.


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 them,

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 Tribal-State Commission,

a state agency that includes Indians and non-Indians,

suggests that the word 'squaw' originated among Indian tribes

in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and elsewhere

as a neutral word for woman or wife. 

It is not found in the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy

or Maliseet languages.


Over time, use of the word spread far beyond southern

New England, and it developed a negative connotation.

Several dictionaries say the word is often

used in an offensive and insulting way.

"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 Indians.


"One experience that is burned into my memory was

coming home one day (as a child) and seeing a big road

sign at the end of our road that said Squaw Knoll.

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 sexually promiscuous.

They said it is as insulting to Indian women as the

most base racial slurs are to African-Americans.


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 complimentary,

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 that claim.

If Maine Indians had named such places, she asked,

why would they have used a word that is

not found in any of Maine's tribal languages?"

"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 said.


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:


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