Cape Cod’s Squaw Island sparks debate over Native American culture

HYANNISPORT – For centuries the lush, Hyannisport Marsh Green Arrow was referred to locally as Squaw Island, with legends surrounding a “squaw” or Wampanoag woman, who awaited her husband’s return from the war on the island.

Corn US Home Secretary Deb Haaland recently designated the word “squaw” as a racial insult and decided to ban the word on federal lands. Haaland, a registered citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna Native American tribe in New Mexico, is the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position.

Along with the designation of Haaland, there is the creation of a task force that will assess 650 locations and rename the streams, valleys, lakes, streams, road signs and parks across the country that contain the word “squaw” including Squaw Island in Hyannisport.

But Camille Madison, from Wopanâak language recovery project in Mashpee, said the designation is a call to “look at history” and “reconnect with the origins of the Algonquian language”.

“Squaw is a word or what’s called a morpheme – a significant morphological unit of a language. It refers to the female character of a woman and is used to create words that mean woman, or little girl, or good girl, ”said Madison, who is a member of the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). “I want to respect that people feel offended by the use of this word. Western tribes did not know it was a morpheme in our language. But what does this tell us as the Algonquin people? This (Haaland’s designation) contributes to and perpetuates our erasure. It is part of my sacred language. This is who I am.

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According to Madison, about 12 tribal nations in the Eastern Forest Territory of the Indigenous peoples of North America use the sound or morpheme “squaw” as part of the Algonquian language family.

In a recent statement, Haaland explained why she initiated the process to eradicate the word “squaw” from geographic features on federal lands.

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. The lands and waters of our country should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage – not to carry on the legacy of oppression ”, Haaland said in the statement. “Today’s actions will accelerate an important process aimed at reconciling derogatory place names and mark a milestone in honoring the ancestors who have ruled our lands from time immemorial. “

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry could not be reached for comment.

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Paula Peters, author of “The Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice” and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said the debate over the word “squaw” is a “lesson in how words can be used to reinforce hatred against groups of people. “

“The term ‘squaw’ is a Wampanoag term for a woman. It could mean a woman with power, it could mean a queen, ”she said. “But because that word was taken and used to reinforce hatred against Aboriginal people, we are now in conflict. “

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While the Town of Barnstable cannot confirm that Squaw Island is on federal land, the area is listed as 615794 in the Home Office’s federal locations database which will be reviewed for “use. in derogatory terms ”under the Haaland Directive.

As David Anthony, Barnstable’s Director of Asset and Risk Management, recently reviewed Squaw Island’s property records, he discovered that the area had never been “officially named” Squaw Island and was still part of Squaw Island. Hyannisport. But Squaw Island Road, which is owned by the city and leads to the area now known as Squaw Island, could be renamed to “follow federal decisions,” he said.

Squaw Island shown on an 1888 map by the US Geological Survey.  The island is identified as Squaw Island in every map version until at least 1979 in a USGS historical map database.

“If the federal government is to remove this usage word at some point, the city may consider renaming Squaw Island Road to something else to be consistent,” said Anthony. “With a private road I don’t think we have that much jurisdiction, but since it is a public road it could be an interesting debate to have in today’s conversations which are very important in this regard. “

As early as 1888, a US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Database shows a Squaw Island marked on his maps in Hyannisport.

Anthony said the town acquired 6 acres of Squaw Island shoreline for $ 1 in 1986 – a plot adjacent to Hall’s Creek and often invisible when it slips under high tides. Beyond that, the area is largely privately owned with close ties to the Kennedy family.

The island’s ties to the Kennedy family

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy rented and converted the gray-shingle Morton Downey home into a “white summer house,” when the Secret Service became concerned about the nearby Kennedy compound being close to its neighbors.

During the last summer of Kennedy’s life in 1963, he moved to Brambletyde on Squaw Island, a sprawling mansion that overlooks Nantucket Sound. Since then, Brambletyde, according to Wendy Northcross, executive director of the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, has passed into the hands of Kennedy, including US Senator Edward Kennedy and his then-wife Joan Kennedy, and most recently belonged to the US Senator Robert. F. Kennedy’s son, Christopher Kennedy, who sold Brambletyde to Joseph Hakim of New York City for $ 1 in 2011, according to Barnstable valuation records.

Madison, a teacher at the Wopanâak Language Reclamation Project, established in 1993 under the leadership of Jessie “Little Doe” Baird to restore mastery of the language to the Wampanoag Nation as the primary medium of expression, said Halaand’s designation may be based on on his lack of knowledge of the Algonquin language family, which includes the Wampanoag, Pequot, Nipmuc, Massachussett and Narragansett peoples.

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When settlers made contact with the eastern tribal nations, Madison said, they heard native people use the word “squaw” to create many Algonquian words, including terms reverencing women and girls. Combined “with the way the settlers viewed women in their own communities,” she said, newcomers did not understand how sound worked linguistically, which resulted in the development of the insult, which they took with them as settlements and colonization spread to western tribal territories. from the country.

“It is a reminder to the (tribal) people on the west side of Turtle Island who are far removed from us – to consider us,” she said. “Some of our own people don’t know or understand that squaw sound is part of our language. There is more than 150 years of dormancy for the Wopanâak language. But we are working to change that.

To many indigenous peoples, North America is referred to as Turtle Island, a reference that comes from tribal oral histories.

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Mwalim Peters, associate professor of English and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said Haaland’s designation came from seeing “people of color as monoliths.” By viewing Indigenous people as “we are all the same,” he said, instead of recognizing the diversity of tribal cultures, languages ​​and ways of life, the eastern tribal presence is forgotten and sidelined.

US Home Secretary Deb Haaland speaks about the Vineyard Wind offshore wind project at a groundbreaking ceremony on November 18 in Centerville.  Haaland recently referred to the word

“Much of the politics seems to focus on what tribal people in the West are saying and unfortunately a lot of Western tribal people have an anti-Eastern bias,” Peters said. “Westerners find this (the word squaw) offensive, but at the same time, it’s a word and a sound that one finds among the Algonquins. So now we are stamping out the Algonquian word because it is viewed as derogatory by Westerners – despite the fact that it is truly one of our words. There is a certain madness there.

Whether it is a word or a sound, Elizabeth Pinchback-Lamar, a language acquisition researcher at Smith College Northampton, said that every aspect of a language is a “very specific creation of human communities. “.

“This specific re-labeling of a sound or a word and taking a word from a community is one of the ways that communities die,” she said.

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Because the “squaw” sound has been taken at different points in history, in part, the motivation was to prevent future generations from learning it the right way, Pinchback-Lamar said.

“The word has not become a new definition. It was basically stolen and used to insult her own community, ”she said. “This is something that we see that happens very often with marginalized communities when more than one community is in contact and at least one of them is convinced to have power over another. It is very easy for words to be stolen, distorted, and misused.

Despite the “unique story of the sonic squaw,” which is now considered an “insult or derogatory,” Pinchback-Lamar said, it is essential for those who spoke and still speak the original Algonquian language “to determine how it must be used. . “

View from Squaw Island looking west over Hyannisport Golf Club towards Osterville.

“It is important not to view this term as offensive, because all that does is give more power to the racist abuse of the term,” she said. “But instead of trying to save a bunch of people from being offended, all you do is write about the history of the sound of the word. This not only indicates that their opinion does not matter, but more importantly, it literally erases their existence from this particular term, which is very dangerous.

For Madison, the only way to find common ground around the “squaw” sound is to “pump the breaks” on Haaland’s initiative.

“We need to at least have a conversation to enlighten people on this Algonquian language,” Madison said. “A lot of times the natives and natives don’t correct people until they come and ask. It’s time to be less reserved and talk about our ability to connect with our language proficiency and our forms of expression.


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