Link to Education Week article by Jared Hautamaki here.
The interim superintendent of the Montgomery County district responded to me. He said that in a large, diverse school district, not everyone is going to like what they see. He said that given the system’s values of equity and respect and students’ right of free expression, district officials would continue to monitor the impact and respond to the issue by benchmarking their actions against those of other Washington-area school districts. He hoped I would continue to collaborate with my son’s principal and still be “respectful and kind.” He didn’t address the academic research that I had shared. He didn’t address the comments of the district spokesman, who said the board addresses complaints like mine on a school-by-school basis. He didn’t address the dress code. He didn’t address the offensiveness of the name. But, he also didn’t use the name itself.
In the Washington region, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, tribal lobby offices, and tribal law firms all employ a steady number of Native Americans who leave their tribal homes and uproot their families to serve their communities and their two nations—their tribe and the United States government. Native American student enrollment in the Montgomery County schools is around 280 students. The fact that we are a minority among minorities in the region is not an excuse for ignoring our children’s rights to an education environment free of racist imagery and discrimination.
Leaving the legal world for a moment, we offer a link to a very strange defense of the use of the word “squaw” by the Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman (here). We could be wrong, but this article seems to be a classic case of an academic wearing blinders, or worse, an etymological ideologue.
In short, Liberman concludes that the etymology of “squaw” is that the word simply means “woman,” and so therefore cannot possibly be an epithet. He mocks advocates for changing place names to eliminate the use of the word.
There are several problems in the argument, especially the tone of Liberman’s writing (just read the article — the part about squirrels is baffling), but we’ll focus on just the most obvious problems.
First, the Oxford Etymologist’s etymology is incredibly superficial, and downright ethnocentric.
We’d like to see an indigenous etymology of this word, which is undeniably an epithet no matter the so-called “science” behind it. Assuming the scholars upon which Liberman relies are correct (and we have no reason to doubt it) and “squaw” derives from an eastern Algonkian language, then merely concluding the word means “woman” is nowhere near conclusive. It is our understanding that the vast majority of words in Anishinaabemowin, the language of many Michigan Indians and an Algonkian language, are verbs. What this means is perhaps the Massachusett word from which “squaw” derives is actually a verb. So-called nouns in many Indian languages are actually verbs, so that the word that non-Indians say means “woman” very possibly means something along the lines of “person who does something.” And likely that “something” will let us know if the word is intended as a respectful word, or not. We don’t see from the sources available online (e.g., here) a serious attempt to provide a proper etymology of the word.
Regardless of the etymology, there is a second important reason to reject Liberman’s position.