Enduring a di-squaw-iting complaint


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in June 2015

The English language is replete with words used by one certain segment of the population aimed at a different segment of the population and that are now considered politically incorrect, and rightfully so. 

How many people had grandparents that told a rather off colour version of the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme? Or used colorful (no pun intended) words to describe people of Italian, Irish, south Asian or African descent, just to name a few? It’s the fall-out from less enlighten times, with which many HR departments are still struggling.

Recently, a small portion of this battle has landed in my own politically-correct lap. I am a playwright and have a children’s play currently touring a good chunk of central and southern Ontario. The play is called Spirit Horse and is produced by Roseneath Theatre.

Essentially, the play is about two First Nation kids living in Calgary, who come into possession of a mysterious horse with powers to heal their depressed father. It’s an adaptation and Indigenization of an Irish/Gypsy play called TIR NA N’OG and is being promoted as a play that deals with the problem of racism. And as the old Aboriginal saying goes, ‘You can’t play golf without whacking a few balls.’

In a sequence where the children try to raise money to feed the horse by busking/begging for money on a street corner, several passersby refer to the kids as “dirty Indians” and “squaws”. Those particular terms have elicited some negative response, particularly from one grandparent in southwestern Ontario, who sent a letter to the Windsor Star complaining of the language. 

This woman also filed a complaint with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, who is responsible for arranging the tour of Ontario schools, and with the Chiefs of Ontario. More importantly to me, as the writer, she has petitioned for the augmentation of the script and the removal of the offending words.

These are indeed offensive words. There is no way to argue otherwise. In my younger years my college roommate would occasionally refer to me as a ‘wagonburner” jokingly, and one or two classmates in college would occasionally refer to me as “Chief’, which they thought was a compliment.

Personally, I know a lot of people, especially the older generation, that still use the term ‘Indian, though not so much with the ‘dirty’ prefix. And with the success of Thomas King’s amazing book, The Inconvenient Indian, it’s almost reintroduced the word into polite, educated company. Still, in most ears, ‘squaw” surpasses all those epithets several times over.

As a writer, obviously I understand the power of words. So I do not use them lightly. I did not wake up one morning thinking to myself ‘Hey, I think I will use some sexually and racially derogatory monikers of Native women in my children’s play today, just for the heck of it.” That is not how I work.

The sequence of the play where this exchange happens was orchestrated specifically to show the frequently thin veneer between a healthy society and a racist one. These things happen, and I agree, it is a tragedy that it has to appear in a play for young audiences.

It is one quick exchange, there and then over with in less than three seconds. This too is symbolic of how these things can happen in real life. I am loath to be critical of this woman, because for many, the term ‘squaw’ can bring back myriad unpleasant and emotionally damaging memories. My heart breaks for them. The term should and does raise the hackles of most Native men who care anything about their culture and people.

I do not believe eliminating the words from my play, or any play, will solve the problem. In the context of Spirit Horse, the exchange is presented in such a flippant, and at the same time, unpleasant manner, it should be obvious to the children watching that this is not a practice to be emulated.

I used a misogynistic word because it is, indeed, misogynistic. Replacing it with something more politically correct like “those dirty rotten Native, Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous kids” loses something in the translation. Getting rid of the words, in hope of getting rid of the prejudice, very seldom is effective in getting rid of the racism. In fact, racism needs to be faced head on, looked directly in the eyes, and kicked in the groin.

There was a similar push to remove certain words, and indeed the novel itself, from The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer due to the excessive use of the ‘N’ word. That makes me shudder.

As with Tom Sawyer, issues like this should be address and explored in class and in the support material, not eliminated from plays and literature in the vain hopes that by cleansing art, it will be eliminated from life. I think the cure would be worse than the disease.

In this day and age of political correctness, it’s interesting to note how many words, once considered obscene, have now been reclaimed by the population the words so prominently tarred.

Several years ago I heard a discussion on CBC radio about the term ‘squaw’. Evidently there is a movement, however small, by some Native women attempting to re-appropriate the word. There is a school of thought that ‘squaw’ comes from the Ojibway/Algonquin word “kwe” meaning woman, and over the years was bastardized to mean something derogatory. They wanted to retake the word.

Many geographical locations have been renamed. No more Squaw River or Squaw Mountain, and I think that is a great idea. And let’s not forget the recent silliness when Canadian fashion designers Desquared2 released their new line of clothing with strong Aboriginal influences. For some reason known only to those who are so cool and so hip it defies common sense and logic, they called the fashion line “Dsquaw”.  They are now de-squalified, de-serted and de-tested.

Still, in regards to Spirit Horse, it’s a complex issue for sure. In the end, it’s a play about two kids and a horse on an adventure. It will continue touring until the end of the school year.  Hopefully.

Sometimes it’s not easy being a First Nation—or Indian—writer.