James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Essay 8: Problematic Words about Native Americans

Recognizing that inaccurate history often subtly promotes continuing white supremacy, the National Education Association (NEA) commissioned these articles and has posted some of them in slightly different form at its website. I thank Harry Lawson and others at NEA for the commission, for editorial suggestions, and for other assistance.

Sometimes well-meaning non-Native teachers hurt Native Americans students inadvertently. Offending words include “squaw” and “brave,” while “chief,” “tribe,” and “nation,” “primitive” and “civilized,” “settled,” “New World,” and even “Native American” versus “American Indian” can be problematic. Worse, these same words can unintentionally increase ethnocentrism and anti-Indian thinking among non-Native students.

Ethnocentrism means unthinkingly putting one’s own culture (“ethnos”) at the center of one’s thinking, judging other cultures by how closely they resemble one’s own. Here the problem starts with the basic storyline of U.S. history textbooks — one of unrelenting progress. It follows that authors consider Native people before contact primitive. So far as technology is concerned, they were. Unfortunately, “primitive” and its opposite, “civilized,” carry confusing multiple meanings.

At their best, anthropologists use “civilized” rigorously to mean “complex division of labor.” Shoshones, living in small nomadic bands, had a “primitive” division of labor into just three main categories: men, women, and children. Nazi Germans had thousands of different jobs, from bus driver to Brownshirt — obviously “civilized.” Unfortunately, “civilized” also means orderly, nice, refined — not at all like the Third Reich.

Sculptors and moviemakers are afflicted by “primitive” and “civilized” when they unthinkingly portray half-naked Natives together with fully-clothed Europeans. Teachers can stimulate student thinking about this image by showing them the statue of the Dutchman buying Manhattan from a Native for a string of beads. Ask: what’s wrong with this sculpture? Most students won’t notice it, but no two people have ever dressed so differently on the same spot on the same day. One would be impossibly hot or the other impossibly cold. The only reason students don’t see this quickly is, it fits with the clichéd concepts of “primitive” Indians and “civilized” Europeans. The rest of the story — villagers selling their houses and lands for $24 worth of beads — makes Native thinking look primitive, if not downright idiotic, and is equally fallacious.

The same issue also afflicts “tribe” vs. “nation.” Choctaws, for example, governed a swath of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee larger than Belgium, Holland, and Denmark combined, but without a king or much hierarchy. Should we call them a nation or a tribe? Some Natives don’t like “nation,” seeing a Western term that connotes more hierarchy than most Natives would permit. Others don’t like “tribe,” seeing a Western term that implies that Native governments were primitive, which they were not. Similarly, some Natives prefer “Native American”; others choose “American Indian.” Students can understand this; after all, some women prefer “Mrs.” or “Miss” while others choose “Ms.” Neither choice is necessarily bad. If just one group is involved, simply use their own name.

“Squaw” is flatly indefensible. It has become a disparaging slang term for a Native American woman. Yet California names a mountain “Squaw Tits,” and of course “Squaw Valley” is a famous ski resort.

Then consider “settle.” Towns display signs saying “Settled 1686” (or whenever). Yet European Americans usually settled where people already lived, so these signs should read, “Settled c.11,000 B.P.; Resettled 1686.”

Photo credit Desert Mountaineer. Two more "Big Squaw Tits", this time in Arizona, an affront to Native Americans everywhere.

Later articles will treat “discover” and the use of Indian terms as sports mascots. But we must note here that many tribal names turn out to be derogatory. Often European Americans learned what to call a group from people they knew in the next tribe over, who weren’t friendly. Thus “Eskimo” means “those who eat raw flesh.” They call themselves Inuits, meaning “we the true people.” “Navajo” means “those who steal from the fields.” They call themselves Dineh, “we the people.” “Sioux” means “snakes,” while “Dakota” means “allies.” Some Native groups, however, decided to go along with popular usage years ago, so there is no need for teachers to be “purists” if the group itself does not mind. Always find out what a group calls itself and use that term.

Essential Reading

  • Loewen, Entries 1, 7, 14, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26, 66, 78, 89, in Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007), treat most of these points at greater length, making it easier to teach about them.
  • High school students got Minnesota to eliminate “squaw” as a geographic name in the state. Other states are following through. See “Squaw Lake Resists Name Change,” news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200104/30_robertsont_squawlake-m/.
Lies Across America book cover collage