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On The Use Of Politically Correct Terms In Historical Fiction, by Jane Kirkpatrick

A writer recently asked how to refer to American Indians in a book she was writing that was set in the 1860s in the American West. Should they be Indians or Native Americans? Should she use the terms brave or squaw? She wondered if she should go with political correctness and not use words like squaw or whether to be “authentic”, since people back then would have used those words.

I’ve decided to go with political correctness for two reasons:  one, I know a lot of Indian people who consider the word squaw to be a diminishing, derogatory term.  Brave appears to have fewer evocative reactions, as do half-breed or mixed-blood. So I’d be less concerned with using those last two.  I wouldn’t use squaw. Not ever. I’m not alone.

Over the past several years, my state, Oregon, has renamed every mountain, creek and road that used the squaw term. They’ve replaced the word with an Indian word such as Whychus, a word that means “woman” or Chush a word that means “water”. Water, to Indian people, is sacred and to have a falls or creek described by a demeaning word adds insult to the injury so I celebrate these changes, knowing how offensive the word is to my Indian friends.

In the narration of a novel, if the mountain carried an Indian name in 1840, the period of my story, I’d continue to call it what it was known as then. But it’s highly unlikely that the term using the word squaw was attributed to the creek or mountain until much later when the words of white people replaced the names used by Indians. I’d be more inclined in being authentic to find the original Indian name and use it, which is in part what the geographical naming committee did within Oregon. I wouldn’t use the term squaw to describe a character.

The other reason I tend to go with political correctness is something Joyce Carol Oates said at the Festival of Faith and Writing a number of years ago. She said that a writer should do three things in a story: create empathy for a character and the flawed world in which they live, be a witness for people who otherwise might not have a voice and memorialize. Given those things, I think that when writers use the more politically correct, present day terms, we are memorializing something with integrity and we’re giving voice to an otherwise silent witness.

I think we can depict the past and create the emotional impact of the words of the time without ever using them. Such word choices can be even more powerful than actually using the word – something I also think is true of cursing or sexually explicit terms, but that’s another post.

It takes more creativity and work to have a character say, “He snarled at her, calling her words he’d heard his father use to describe women he despised. She lowered her eyes.” Such a phrase also conveys a quality of the character that just using the word squaw doesn’t.

I choose to find other ways to describe these relationships in history to be authentic to the people without using words that would offend people living today.


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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for that post. I struggled with that in a children’s historical fiction. The names for some of the people groups I was working with have changed, and I wasn’t sure which way to go. I ultimately decided to go with political correctness because I was concerned if a child read the story today and didn’t understand that a certain word was inappropriate, they could repeat it and hurt someone else.

    September 28, 2013
  2. While I appreciate your thoughtful and considerate response to this issue, I’ve chosen to disagree with it in my writing. In my YA 17thC pirate novel, with many nationalities and both genders represented, everyone is racist at some level, according to the mores and cultural beliefs of the time. As a minor theme, I played lightly on racism, and even slavery, while showing the hideous consequences of both. In my current WIP, a YA historical novel set in 1939 Hokkaido and Japan, I’ve used the derogatory racist term ‘inu’ (or ‘dog’) in the context of a Japanese person referring to an Ainu person. It was low racist humour of the time and, while the plot can advance without the use of it, to shy away from this aspect of the multiple conflicts of the time, most of which had racism at their core, I felt would be a disservice to both Japanese and Ainu. I don’t take a pedantic stand on racism with either book, but use it along with the other cultural threads to help weave character motivation and plot. Finally, to shy away from showing overt racism and other values I consider morally wrong, would feel like I thought the reader wasn’t capable of dealing with it. I know many gatekeepers of what enters the literary canon disagree with my approach, but five minutes on a street corner, the teenage end of the railway carriage, or a school yard during break would quickly smash any preconceptions about the delicate nature of our young people’s attitudes to difficult subjects. They call a spade an ‘effin’ shovel, and epithets fly. But it’s not all bad. In the process of bumping up against each in this manner, learning can occur, as can understanding and empathy. Drama is conflict, and by fully revealing racism and its context in stories, we allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the harm it does, in the safety of the written page.

    September 29, 2013
  3. There is controversy over use of the word squaw.

    There is a danger in taking a politically correct approach that contemporary reinterpretations of words by some people can drive controversy and pressure other people into not using particular words. This can encourage some people to attribute negative connotations to the use of particular words in literature of the past which were not intended in their original use.

    An alternative take on the word squaw, by anthropologist Dr Margaret M Bruchac (who happens to be Native American, or Indian for those who prefer that term) is available here:

    In my experience – as someone who lives in Australia but who has read a lot of books and academic journal articles, and watched a lot of movies – the word squaw has been used to mean woman in the instances I have personally encountered it. What I have read of the etymology of the word also supports that the historical meaning of the word squaw is woman.

    Of course, this is a sensitive issue in the United States and various writers will approach it in various ways.

    September 29, 2013
  4. Hi Jane, My soon-to-be-released novel, A Sky without Stars, wrestled with this question. An antagonist uses squaw and other NA terms, but the narrative went with Native Americans, although in the 50s this wasn’t usual. We are writing about history, yes, and I’m sort of OK with putting slurs into the mouths of the characters (as rarely as possible!) but as I describe the story, I must conclude that my READERS are contemporary–with all the hurts, history and bad memories passed along to them. We don’t use PC terms for the characters; we use them for the readers. After all, haven’t they been through enough? Respect, dignity are easy for me to dispense. Great post! And congrats on your win! Linda Clare

    September 30, 2013

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