- What’s in a Name? The 1940s–1950s “Squaw Dress”
In his 2000 essay, “What Is Native Studies,” First Nations scholar Peter Kulchyski wrote that “Native Studies is the setting right of names, the righting of names as much as the writing of names.” This goal includes properly naming elders who provide information for our studies so that “the names of these knowledgeable people can take their place beside the names of the non-Native authorities so carefully cited in scholarly practice.” He also argues that places should be renamed so that “the inscriptions on the land developed over centuries by First Nations may once again be read, the stories once again told.” He concludes that “Native Studies plays a role in, and may be nothing more than, the careful calculation, the deliberate, cautious, but necessary practice of righting names.”1
Unfortunately, the righting of names is not as simple a process as Kulchyski posits. While scholars may try to eliminate offensive names, words of conquest, or colonialist adjectives, many problematic names are created by individuals and organizations over which we have little control except societal peer pressure and the general desire of people not to offend. The hardest names to right will be those associated with entrenched representational stereotypes because repeated visualization is so subconsciously engrained that people do not recognize the associations, often because of cultural blindness.2 An example relevant for this article is the oppositional binary system through which Native American women have been seen as either squaws or princesses.3 Equally hard to change are names that have deep-rooted associations with the identity of a Native or non-Native social group, such as fans of a sports team who feel ownership of a named image they created. Ironically, the easiest names to right may well be those associated with commodities that reflect periodic [End Page 373] stylistic change and relabeling; it is in retailers’ best interests not to be linked with a label that customers could consider offensive.
But what’s in a name? What denotative and connotative aspects are suspect or offensive? To whom are they offensive? How do we recognize names that need righting? Who creates the names and the way they are presented to the general public and First Nation/American Indian peoples? What role does transcultural or transnational borrowing play in naming? How do connotations change over time, especially when used across cultural boundaries and space? Who has the right to decide and demand that a name, especially one with multiple neutral, positive, and negative connotations, needs to be righted, and based on what information and authority?
It takes a good deal of historic information and interpretive analyses to understand these linguistic, social, and cultural questions. But the call for righting and its actualization as a contemporary cultural process generally occurs without requisite scholarship because scholarship tends to show that naming is complex and murky. The process often begins in anger and frustration; it relies on rhetoric that is impassioned, essentializing, and morally righteous as well as a focus on a word’s most disrespectful connotation chosen from a range of alternative meanings. Activists do this to call attention to a perceived insult that they feel is being ignored, generally through the indifference, ignorance, or intentional prejudice of the general public, that is, cultural blindness or assumed cultural or racial superiority. In addition, the simple elimination of a name may or may not be enough to challenge a deeply entrenched prejudicial or romanticized stereotype that is marked by a questionable label. Calling something by a different term and getting it accepted across North America does not always right questionable visual symbols that stem from or coexist with a problematic name. Labels and images work together to create a holistic message but are separate entities whose processes of change take different trajectories.
Many commercial images and names linked to Native Americans are created for and perpetuated by popular culture and stem from past linguistic usage. In this article we present a case study of the questionable naming and the quiet, almost unnoticed, righting of a name for a Native-derived garment in...