When racial epithets become inconvenient

For native people there is no more offensive slur than "squaw," but should it be banned from a play for young audiences?


I have a children’s play currently touring a good chunk of central and southern Ontario. The play is called Spirit Horse and is produced by Roseneath Theatre, a non-profit specializing in work for young audiences.

Essentially, the play is about two First Nations kids living in Calgary, who come into possession of a horse with mysterious powers to heal their depressed father. It’s an Indigenous adaptation of the Irish Gypsy tale Tir na N’Og and is being promoted as a play that deals with the problem of racism. And as the old Aboriginal saying goes, you can’t play golf without whacking a few balls.

In a sequence where the children try to raise money to feed the horse by busking and begging on a street corner, several passersby refer to them as “dirty Indians” and “squaws.”  Those particular terms have elicited some negative response, in particular from Mona Stonefish, a grandparent in southwestern Ontario, who sent a letter to the Windsor Star complaining of the language. She has also filed a complaint with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), which is responsible for arranging the tour of Ontario schools, and with the Chiefs of Ontario. More importantly to me, as the writer of the script, she has petitioned the ETFO and  Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, for the removal of the offending words. 

This is the third province-wide tour of the play. There are 20 southern communities on the current tour. It was staged in 33 northern communities in 2010. ETFO president Sam Hammond has pointed out that the play is accompanied by professional development workshops created in consultation with Aboriginal leaders to guide teachers and students in discussions about issues the play raises. This is the first time a formal complaint of this nature has been made. 

On the surface, these are indeed offensive words. In my college years, my roommate would occasionally and jokingly refer to me as a “wagon burner,” and one or two other classmates  would refer to me as “Chief,” which they thought was a compliment. I believe it was a reference to the nickname of a native hockey player who played for the Leafs several decades ago. 

I know a lot of people, especially the older generation, that still use the term “Indian.” And with the success of Thomas King’s amazing The Inconvenient Indian, it’s reintroduced the word into polite, educated company. Still, in most ears, “squaw” surpasses all epithets several times over.  

The sequence of the play in question was written to show the thin veneer that exists between a healthy society and a racist one. These things happen, and I agree, it is a tragedy that it has to appear in a play for young audiences. I am loathed to be critical of those who may be offended because for many the term “squaw” still brings back a myriad of unpleasant and emotionally-damaging memories. The term should and does raise concerns among most natives who care anything about their culture and people.

But I do not believe eliminating the words from my play or any play will solve the problem. This was exactly the same argument used to justify the exclusion of the n-word from recent editions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few years ago. 

But getting rid of words is very seldom effective in getting rid of racism. Racism needs to be confronted head-on, looked directly in the eyes, and kicked in the groin. Issues like this should be explored in the classroom, not eliminated from plays and literature. That would be like watching 1950’s television again: more pleasant but unreal.

In the context of the play, the exchange is presented in such a flippant, and at the same time, unpleasant manner, that it is obvious to the children watching that the behaviour is not to be emulated. 

We all have different triggers. One play of mine, In A World Created By A Drunken God, lost a sponsor who found the title offensive to Christians. Another play produced in Vancouver received a bomb threat because one person thought it was “racist against White people.” Yes, White people can be so touchy.

Many words, once considered obscene, have now been reclaimed by those same segments of the population the words used to offend.  They’ve all been embraced with varying degrees of comfort.  There is a movement, however small, by some native women to reapporpriate the word squaw. There is a school of thought that the word comes from the Ojibway/Algonquin word “kwe” meaning woman, and over the years has come to mean something derogatory. 

Many geographical locations have been renamed.  No more Squaw River or Squaw Mountain, and I think that is great. Word is still out on the city of Squamish though. And let’s not forget the recent silliness when Canadian fashion designers Desquared2 released their new line of clothing with strong aboriginal influences.  For some reason known only to those who are so cool and so hip, they decided to call the fashion line “Dsquaw.”  

In years past, native people out west were frequently referred to as “prairie niggers.” However, I don’t think there is any movement eager to reclaim that term. It’s a complex issue, for sure. 

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright, author and humorist. He is originally from Curve Lake First Nations in central Ontario.

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