When Seeing Squaw Means Seeing Red

Indians once lived here

We take for granted American Indian sensibilities at Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.

But November—Native American Heritage Month—ushers in the invitation to see more than just these two events through Indian eyes.

Try it.

When you listen to the news today or pull up your internet, take a moment to view information and events through a different lens.

I had the opportunity last week while visiting the East Coast to walk through villages where the ocean spirited away boardwalk and drenched the basements of homeowners.

We decided to survey the damage and walked miles on the coast, stopping along the beach at Manasquan Bay.

Just hearing the name piqued my curiosity about the area named for the local natives.

According to the township’s website, the Turtle People (Unami) were the original inhabitants, who gathered with their families at the bay to enjoy the sea and shellfish. “Along the Manasquan River they brought their squaws and children in the summer,” the website says.


Most Indians I know consider the term offensive. During one of her frequent public lectures, activist Suzan Harjo told the crowd the word means vagina.

While the meanings and origins of the word are disputed by linguists, tribal people today nevertheless find it insulting and some communities have tried to rid the word from place names such as Squaw Mountain.

Literature about the East Coast inlet claims that Manasquan means “stream of the island of squaws.”

While Indian names continue to be used by settlers along the coast, from Manasquan Bay to Nantucket, my guess is that folks stopped thinking about the original denizens of the area once the settlers claimed the harbors and rivers.

And while the native place-names and labels lose their punch over time—when they become unmoored from their origins–we should never forget that the bays and shores were inhabited by our Indian relatives.

[Day nine of Native American Heritage Month. I pledge one blog per day.]


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, ethics, Indian, Native Science, news bias and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s