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.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Historical Novels