Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Vagina Valley, California

It is well known to anyone who knows Marcus and I that we have basically destroyed any notions of comprehensible speech in our everyday conversations with one another. We replace any given syllable of a word with the word "fee" such that delicious might become "feelicious," etc. It's one the beginning of the strange language games we play with each other. We started calling each other "fee" as a bastardization of the French word for girl "fille." From there, "fee" has sometimes become "squee" or "squeefee." In some cases, I am referred to as "squeesquaw."

Now, for us, that's totally nonsensical. The repeated "skwa" sounds at the beginning of both "squee" and "squaw" are just a cute little rhyme pattern that we like to alliterate on. Though to my recollection, I rarely call him "squeesquaw." This term seems to only apply to me.

Which is really interesting, considering that several Native American groups are making headlines once again by petitioning to change the names of places that contain the word "squaw", such as popular Northern California ski spot Squaw Valley.

As the article mentions, many groups feel the word "squaw" was always used by white men in a derogatory manner against Native American women and for the examples the article gives, I think its a decent case. The fact that words like "nigger" and "jap" have been removed from place names acknowledges that these terms are offensive. "Squaw," it seems, has only really sprung to attention as a potentially offensive word since the 1990s, when Suzan Harjo claimed on Oprah that "squaw" was the Mohawk word for "vagina," thus degrading all Native American women by reducing them to their genitalia and, I would assume, depicting yet another image of the female colonized body as sexual subject to the colonizer.

However, Harjo's linguistics are totally inaccurate. According to the Wikipedia article on the word "squaw", the word is actually derived from the Massachuset word meaning "woman." But through the repetition of Harjo's claim by several prominent media members, her mistaken etymology became widely regarded as true. People immediately wanted to change things from "squaw" to less-genital related terms for women--white and Native American alike.

What this really comes down to for me--and I admit wholeheartedly that this is the perspective of a white, middle-class, bisexual-but-marrying-a-man, third wave feminist--is that our real problem with the word "squaw" from both white and Native American perspectives is that it could possibly mean vagina.

And we, in both cultures, I suppose, do not talk about vaginas. And we certainly don't acknowledge that women have them. Or that, in a purely anatomical sense, the presence of a vagina is one definition of woman. (Imagine how important it is for a transwoman to finally get her vagina--that's the thing that really makes her a "passable" woman. Then maybe will it make sense that vagina and woman are one in the same.)

For me, that's the real problematic. The real problematic here is that people are offended by drawing a connection between women and their vaginas. Vaginas themselves are offensive. Women--white and Native American--don't want to be conflated with their sex organs. Is this because we, white women, are taught that our vaginas are dirty? Shameful? Man's ruin? Naturally, they're something that we don't want to become an appellation of ourselves if the negative associations of the vagina are considered to be true. That's why women are offended when you call another woman a "cunt." Though Suzan Harjo's assertion that "squaw" means "vagina" has been credibly disproven by a number of linguistic sources over the years, people are still offended--Native and white alike--because they think it means vagina.

Some sources like Cecil Adams claim that the term is offensive in other ways, mostly because the word "squaw" has often been used in racially colored language referring to white interaction with Native Americans. Adam's likens it to the use of "Negress" and "Jewess"--both of which are certainly offensive to the women to which they refer. I have no problem with claims that "squaw" is derrogatory in the sense that it is a racially specialized term that marks Native American women as "other" than white woman. That otherness may sometimes be associated with a "native" sexuality that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago regarding the body of the colonized woman.

According to some very good morphological evidence cited at bluecorncomics.org, in a number of Native American languages, "squaw" is not even a free morpheme (that is to say, it's not its own word; it only has meaning when attached to other words). The morpheme "squaw" does mean woman (and could, for all we know, denote woman by literally meaning "vagina"; take, for example, Diegueno, a Native American language spoken in Baja California which uses a morpheme to indicate that a verb is performed with the mouth--a word for "to bite" would literally mean "to cut with the mouth"). "Squaw" is a morpheme that, however, cannot exist on its own in the language and must be attached to other words to have meaning. It came to be its own morpheme in pidgin languages developed through white trade with Native Americans. That, I would say, is arguably both offensive and oppressive if it is, in fact, a word that white people invented to refer to the Native American "others."

For those reasons--squaw being a tool of white oppression, especially white male oppression--I can support the idea of easing it out of our usage--at least in terms of place names. I'm not one to say that any word is a bad word, and "squaw," like "nigger," certainly has its place in history and should its usages--both positive and negative--should be spoken about. It's less likely to be misused if its understood.

But simply because it might mean vagina is not a reason I can support eliminating it from use--especially as a place name. Men do not seem to be bothered when you call them dicks or cocks or pricks. They wear their anatomical sex like a badge of honor. (I imagine even transgender men might feel similar pride when they're voices drop and their breasts are removed and their clitorises enlarge.) Women wear our anatomy with utter shame. We are shocked to be called twats, cunts or pussies. This is because, while being called a penis synonym is certainly negative, no one responds to hearing those words the way they do when you yell out cunt. (Believe me. I sing cunt from the rooftops.) Men hate being called pussies, though. To call a man a pussy is to emasculate him, to make him effiminate. To call a woman twat or cunt is just as negative, especially because I can only hear those words paired with the words "stupid" and "dumb" as insults, meaning something along the lines of "women can't be smart because all they are is their genitals."

As I mentioned, I think part of the problem with this is that we abolish female genitals from having any sort of positive assertion at all. Being a "stupid twat" or a "dumb cunt" only reinforces that.

I don't mind being referred to as my genitals. In WETT, we do it all the time. We call ourselves "a lovely bunch of vaginas." Why? Because we talk about them. We know that having a vagina is something that's very much a part of our identity as women. We know that our anatomy is part of what defines us on a purely biological basis. We also know that is pretty great to be, and have, a vagina. They're amazing, unique organs that everyone seems to forget that they have a connection to. Unless you were a test tube baby, you were conceived and born because of vaginas.

There is a quote in an scholarly article "Sociolinguistics of the S-word: Squaw in American Place Names" by linguist William Bright at the University of Colorado that is as follows:
The supposed Mohawk etymology has been often repeated in publications by Indian organizations, and Indian writers have raised the question: “How would whites feel if they had to live in a place called Vagina Valley?”
Thus reinforcing my claim that it is, in fact, perhaps more than the actual derogatory uses of "squaw" the vagina connection that makes the word most offensive.

Perhaps instead of simply erasing the word, Native American women should make an effort to reclaim the word "squaw" for what it actually means. And both cultures, Native and white, shouldn't be afraid to associate their womanness, their femininity with their genitals. It's part of the package--regardless of whether or not you were born with your vagina or it became a part of you later.

It's never just about what a word means, but how it has said. You can call me a cunt anytime you want to--as long as its never with the venom of Clive Owen saying it to Julia Roberts in Closer. This is why its okay for Marcus and I end signify the end of an argument with our version of "I'm sorry/I forgive you," the word "cuntwhore."


1 comment:

Meg said...

Here, here.