Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writing About Indians When You're Not One: Words

Troy D. Smith

Not long ago I was asked to look over a manuscript that was set among Dakota Sioux Indians before white contact. One thing that jumped out at me was the usage of certain words: papoose, squaw, wigwam. These are all words we tend to associate with Native Americans -in fact, no matter our generation, most Americans were taught in elementary school that "this is the Native American/Indian word for fill-in-the-blank." So on one hand it seems perfectly natural that a non-indigenous writer would put these "Indian" words into the mouths of their Indian characters. But for me, it immediately jumped right out.

What makes these words the "Indian" words?

First, you have to realize (and we all do) that there are hundreds of different languages and dialects that have been spoken by native peoples in North America; some of those languages have died out, but many others have been preserved. The study of those languages is fascinating, and sometimes surprising: for example, did you know that the Athabaskan language group is spoken by tribes in three regions -Alaska and the Yukon, Oregon and Northern California, and the Navajos and Apaches of the Southwest? They don't all speak the same language, of course, but their languages are similar -just as Spanish and Italian are similar as Romance languages, and distantly related to other Indo-European languages like German and English. This tells us that once, a very long time ago, they were the same group of people, and their languages grew apart as some groups migrated southward.

If we are writing fiction set among indigenous tribes, unless we are literally writing in the actual language they spoke, our dialogue is implicitly the English translation of what the characters are actually saying. So then, what is it that makes us want to have an Apache or a Modoc saying "squaw" instead of woman, or "papoose" instead of baby?

Well, let's take a look at the origins of some of the words we associate with Indians.

TOMAHAWK- Powhatan, meaning "hatchet"
PAPOOSE - Narragansett, meaning "child"
WIGWAM -Algonquin, probably Abenaki and/or Penobscot, meaning "dwelling"
SQUAW- Narragansett and/or Massachusett, meaning "woman." Some say it comes from the Mohawk word ojiskwa, meaning slit or vagina, which is why many modern Indian women find it extremely offensive.
WAMPUM- Narragansett and/or Massachusett, meaning "shell beads"
TIPI- Lakota (Sioux), meaning "dwelling"

The last term, tipi, is a structure that was used by Plains Indians. Like a lot of things Americans have tended to regard as quintessentially Indian (the feathered warbonnet being another), this is  a relatively new (or newish) addition to the English lexicon, in large part because the U.S. Army's struggles with those tribes is among the most recent in our memory.

But those other terms in the above list are a lot older.

Also, apart from the possible Mohawk (an Iroquoian language) etymology of squaw, they all come from tribes who spoke/speak languages in the Algonquin family.

Who are the Powhatans? As you probably know, those were the Indians encountered by English colonists in Virginia in 1607.

Want to guess what part of the country the Narragansett, Massachusett, and Penobscot tribes are from? Yes, New England- along with Wampanoags and Pequots, these were the tribes encountered by the English colonists known as Pilgrims in the 1620s.

So then, many if not most of the words we think of as "Indian" terms came from the very first tribes the English colonists met in the New World. "Oh, so this is the Indian word for baby," one can imagine them saying -and since so many of the tribes in the region spoke Algonquin dialects, the words may have even been very similar in many languages. They were then absorbed into the colonial vocabulary, particularly associated with Indians. So far so good.

But two hundred years later, those colonists's descendants were on the Great Plains, expecting Lakota and Arapaho people to call their babies papooses, since after all that is the "Indian word."

Did Sioux Indians ever use the word "papoose"? I'm willing to bet they did. And I'm willing to bet it was because Americans used that word with them, thinking it was their word, and as a consequence our conjectural Sioux probably assumed "papoose" was the white people's word for baby, so he used it when speaking with them.

But if you are writing a story about Cheyenne Indians, or Pueblos -especially if it is set before contact with English-speaking peoples -and you have them saying papoose, or wigwam, you are being very inaccurate.

"But what should I say instead of 'papoose'?" you may ask. How about either finding out what that tribe's word for baby actually is... or just say baby.

On the one hand it seems very ironic -and on the other hand it is totally unsurprising -that Europeans formed opinions about what Indians were "supposed" to be, and applied it generally to every Indian tribe, then started projecting what they saw as authenticity onto Indians without ever thinking to ask them if it was right.

For a complete archive of the entries in this blog series, GO HERE


  1. Lots of good info here, Troy. Yes --if you're looking for the Native word for baby, unless the entire conversation is going to be written in that language, say "baby." It's the Star Trek defense. Everybody knows those aliens spoke different languages, but for the sake of the TV audience they spoke American English.

  2. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Troy. Clearly it is very difficult to get such dialogue right. And now, it seems even more daunting to attempt it.

    When I was in Monument Valley I read about the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II. Thoroughly fascinating. Apparently, Philip Johnson, who thought of using the Navajo language for military communication considered it too difficult a language for an adult to acquire.

  3. Most people don't know that the Choctaws were the Code-talkers of WWI. So far as the difficulty of this type of language, I think it's not so difficult- once you learn that words you thought were "Indian" were not universally so, just use regular English instead. It's not my purpose in writing this series to discourage people by making things over-complicated, but rather to point out things people tend to get wrong in order to make it easier to get things RIGHT. I hope that's what I'm doing.

    1. You are indeed doing that, Professor. It is an invaluable series of posts.

  4. As usual, a well 'phrased' post. I always learn so much and hope for the continuation of this topic. To more lessons, may they reach more and more people. Doris

  5. Keep going professor. I bet we get a lot of things wrong don't we? It is not difficult to understand why American Indian Tribes are very upset with portrayals of Indians in books.

    It still remains my opinion that a writer, doing his or her best, no matter where in the world they come from, has the right to speak of the human condition through words.

    It is also my understanding that not everyone agrees with that supposition.


  6. Well said, as always! The same with "How!" as a greeting. Why do we Anglos seem to think that Indians are all one tribe and speak one language? This is a huge country and we should instead think of it as Europe, divided into a lot of little tribes who might look similar (though you can tell them apart if you pay attention) but who have different cultures.

    Western movies are just as bad - even when they hire Indian actors, they don't hire from the right tribe and they use whatever language the actors happen to know as "Indian." And let's not get into the "authentic" outfits the movie sees fit to show us!

    Honestly, it's as if you went to see a new WWII movie and the Nazis were speaking Danish - and the director said "But we filmed in Denmark, and Danes and Germans share a common ancestor so we didn't think anybody would notice!" Why can't we take the same care with our treatment of Indians and do the research to portray each tribe properly?

  7. I watched a film clip at the National Cowboy Museum about the Western in film. It said that John Ford instructed some hired Indian actors to just 'talk Indian.' They did, but no one told them what to talk about or checked what they were saying. As it turned out they were discussing what they thought of the film, the director and the overall acting.

  8. Troy, even being raised here in Oklahoma where we have so many different Indian tribes, we were not made aware of the differences growing up. I'm constantly amazed at how ignorant we all were--I suppose we could lay it off on "the times" (60's/70's and before) or the fact that NO ONE really noticed until the Indians began their own brand of activism in the 70's. I think it's a way of the Anglos giving all Indians a good kick in the teeth every chance they got by lumping them all together as "the Indians"--too bad "the Indians" never really banded together to fight the Anglos and worked as one group of people against the whites--there might have been some totally different outcomes in a lot of ways had that happened, rather than each tribe remaining a separate entity from the others. I have a cd to learn's tough, but I'm going to try to learn some of it anyhow. I enjoy it.