Eisenberg's squaw and chief schtick a teachable moment

The phrase squaw has a long and ugly history, says professor Marlene Atleo, and because actor Jesse Eisenberg didn't know it is no excuse for him using the word.

'Historical ignorance only goes so far,' says professor Marlene Atleo

​There's a disconnect between historical use of the word 'squaw' and the way it's interpreted today, says University of Manitoba professor Marlene Atleo. (Roswitha Majchrzak)

Just because actor Jesse Eisenberg didn`t know the history of the word 'squaw,' doesn't mean he is excused for using it, Marlene Atleo said.

Atleo was responding to Eisenberg's story Men and Dancing in the May 25 edition of The New Yorker. In the story, he writes about a "squaw" telling a "Native American chief" to do a "rain dance."

Atleo, a member of the Ahousaht First Nation, is a professor at the University of Manitoba, and some of her research has focused on language and achievement.

"I'm not surprised that Eisenburg used [the] word. I don't suspect ignorance," Atleo said.

"Historical ignorance only goes so far. It's not an excuse and not funny."

​There`s a disconnect between historical use of the word squaw and the way it's interpreted today.

The word 'squaw' is derived from an Algonquin word meaning 'woman', and has origins in New England and in Quebec, said Atleo.

Other tribal groups, such as the Cree, Shawnee Nation and Ojibwe, had their own variations of squaw as well.

The problem isn't so much the word, but the pejorative nuance that non-indigenous people cloaked it with over time.

Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci was the first to use the word disreputably when describing hospitable indigenous women in the new world, a behavioural trait of women that was foreign to him.

Vespucci's writings about this observation spread across the continent, and so began the irreversible ugliness that now shrouds the once innocuous word.

Eisenberg's New Yorker piece is proof that history still plays out today. 

It seems indigenous women continue to be locked in a fight they didn't pick.

But such fights are also teachable moments.

"When we have this kind of background subconscious piece coming on us repeatedly you can`t fight it unless you drag it out," Atleo said.

"Drag those myths out of the dark of our subconscious. Bring them forward and say, 'this is why we are being flummoxed again and again.'"

According to Manitoba Treaty Commissioner James Wilson, calling out Eisenberg and others for inappropriate behavior toward indigenous women should also be the duty of indigenous men.

"If I hear jokes about women and it's men [telling them] , then it's my responsibility to call them on it," he said.

"It's a difficult thing to do. But you have to teach yourself to do it and you have to hold yourself accountable for doing it."

Tune into CBC Radio One after the 5 p.m. news in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut, and after the 4 p.m. news in Yukon and the N.W.T. for these stories and more on Unreserved. 

You can also listen on demand.


Wawmeesh George Hamilton is an award winning journalist/photographer and a three-time BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association award winner. He has garnered three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards and was a 2018 Webster Award nominee. He graduated in 2016 with an MA from the UBC graduate school of journalism. He is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. @Wawmeesh

With files from Kim Wheeler


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