Media’s Use of “Pocahontas” and “Squaw” In Brown-Warren Election is Deeply Offensive

CORRECTION 10/1/12: The original article mistakenly identified Suzan Shown Harjo as a Mohawk. She is a citizen of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and is Hodulgee Muscogee from the Nuyakv Grounds. We apologize for the error.

Following the recent Massachusetts Senate debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown the media’s discussion of Warren’s Native American ancestry has once again become a central talking point in the race. Throughout the election, the media has used many deeply racist and sexist terms to discuss this issue. This is a guest post by Debra Merskin, a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches courses in race, gender, diversity and media. She is the author of Media, Minorities, and Meaning: A Critical Introduction. She is half Cherokee and half European/Czechoslovakian.

Words can be weapons and in the case of those used by the media to describe Elizabeth Warren, the weapons are loaded. Repeatedly members of the media have used all matter racial tropes based on supposed Native American “puns” to refer to Warren. “Fauxcahontas” “Lieawatha” “Sacaja-whiner” are just some of the oft-repeated examples. The media’s name calling of Warren has significant social, historical, and psychological import as to how women are (dis)regarded in the public sphere. Whether or not Warren is actually of Native American descent is not the subject of this essay, at issue is how the media has been discussing this topic in flagrantly racist and sexist terminology.

While media pundits have had a field day creating fake Native American names for Elizabeth Warren, two terms are repeated so often that it’s worth explaining their offensiveness in further detail: “squaw” and “Pocahontas.”

“The most offensive term used to address Native American women is ‘squaw,’” according to Navaho Times publisher and editor Tom Arviso, Jr.  Yet that didn’t stop conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh from using Cher’s 1973 hit as the background music when Elizabeth Warren is discussed. He said his program was going to the “Grooveyard of Forgotten Favorites [to] pick out a tune as our Elizabeth Warren Update Theme. Picture Cher as an Indian squaw on horseback.”

Limbaugh played the phrase of Cher signing: My father married a pure Cherokee. My mother's people were ashamed of me. The Indians said that I was white by law. The White Man always called me "Indian Squaw." "Half Breed," that's all I ever heard.”

In another broadcast he referred to Warren as “This is well-known Indian squaw Elizabeth Warren.”

Limbaugh’s hardly alone in using the term. Boston Herald columnist and WRKO radio personality Howie Carr wrote on his blog: “this is the first instance we see of the blue-eyed squaw plagiarizing other people’s works.”

If you call a woman a “squaw,” you've not only insulted her but also relegated her to the dustbins of history. Because it is offensive, legislatures in Oregon, Idaho, Maine and other states have mandated that place names that use the word “squaw” be changed. It has been used as a sexual and racial slur for more than 400 years of U.S. history. While academics have argued for decades over the etymology of the word “squaw,” most attribute it to the Algonquin word for vagina or female genitalia.  Whether or not Warren is or is not enough of an Indian to call herself one is not the issue. As Suzan Shown Harjo (a citizen of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and Hodulgee Muscogee from the Nuyakv Grounds) has pointed out, “The word ‘squaw’ is an Algonquin [sic] Indian word meaning vagina and that’s give you an idea of what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again.”

In research I have conducted over nearly two decades about the use of words and images to construct identity, none is so clearly offensive to those being represented as is “squaw.” Similar to the n-word, “squaw” draws on the bank of stereotypical representations of Native people as animalistic, savage, and sub-human. For Native women the trope is also sexual.

There’s no equivalent slur used against men. If Warren were a man would they be calling her “Chief?” The term still wouldn’t carry the same weight.  Chiefs have power and are not defined by their sexuality. “Brave” is equally stereotypical term but is remains someone to be admired, even if it is on the cover of romance novels. Squaw remains a unique, female-only slur.

At the other end of the spectrum is the term Pocahontas, the use of which is near ubiquitous in conservative media. The real Pocahontas was an important historical figure yet that’s not the tone with which this term is intended. Rather conservative media commentators are clearly drawing upon the Disnification of a Pocahontas type who never existed. Essentially calling her “princess.” It is diminutive and typically sarcastic, as in the uber offensive Jewish American Princess stereotype. The Indian Princess stereotype builds upon notions of natural, wholesome virginity and freshness that exist in opposition to the Squaw who is in some ways a failed princess, a dark twin, who is ugly where the princess is beautiful, immoral where the princess is moral.  But calling a grown woman, especially a public figure, “princess” when that is not her title (Margaret, Grace) is infantilizing and suggests she wants to be waited on. If media just outright calling Elizabeth Warren “princess” (as they have on occasion) it’s likely the obvious sexism would be recognizable – just as there was a huge outcry when Herman Cain similarly addressed Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy." But because the sexist term has been racially coded its largely been given a pass by media observers (With perhaps the possible exemption of Name It. Change It.).

The word bombs leveled at Warren go even deeper than gender to the intersectional connections with race. American Indian women have long been relegated in media to positions of either Pocahontas or Squaw. Research supports this. The virgin and vamp or Madonna/Whore dichotomy that typifies so many representations of women is amplified in the Warren name-calling. It seems most election observers have failed to notice this classic sexist framing since it’s be coded in racial language.

But the discussion about this issue doesn’t stop at calling her “Pocahontas” or “squaw.” Commentators are playing fast and loose with tribes, age, and status. Michelle Malkin referred to Warren as “Sacaja-whiner.” Sacajawia is said to be of Lemhi Shoshone descent, while Pocahontas was Algonquian. Yet online commenters use all kinds of Native-American tribe names to make some kind of point. One called Warren “She will Sioux.” Could anyone who’s used those terms even recognize the difference between the Sioux and the Cherokee? I doubt it.

None of these monikers have anything to do with describing an issue in the election, but are the quickest way of diminishing her as a person and describing stereotypical female Indian-ness. These cultural expressions reinforce public impressions of what constitutes indigenity and the place of indigenous women in simultaneously romanticized and demonized past. This racist and sexist discourse reinforces dehumanizing and limiting views of the abilities of Native women to themselves and to non-Indians but also supports institutionalized oppression of minority peoples.  It insults an entire race of people who are underrepresented politically and legally disenfranchised- all in the interest of a catchy headline or clever pull quote.  Sexist name-calling is an exercise in power and is well established in psychological literature as harmful, humiliating, and has lasting effects on self-esteem.  Dismissing the S-word and terms like it as harmless simultaneously historic word is to dismiss women’s concerns and further silence our voices. 

Published by Rachel Larris on 09/27/2012

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