Squaws and Princesses or Corn Maidens: Misconceptions and Truths about Native American Women


Meldan Tanrýsal

Ever since the discovery of the New World the indigenous peoples have been treated not only unfairly, but also unrealistically pigeonholed into stereotypes. The early explorers, historians, nineteenth century dime novels and twentieth century western movies have contributed immensely to the stereotypical images of the American Indians. Naturally, Native American women were no exceptions, they were stereotyped and misconceptualised. They have either been presented as primitive pagans or romanticised and mythified. On the one hand, the stereotypical Squaw image constituted the inferior, subservient, meek, lazy, wild and lustful woman. On the other hand, the stereotypical Princess was the guide, protector, helper, comforter, lover and rescuer of the white man. She fulfilled these roles at the cost of defying her people, changing her religion and even dying for the white man she loved. The newcomers with their Christian mentality, could not comprehend the Indian woman's power and her role in society. As opposed to misapprehensions, the canonised autobiographies of Native American women evince that Native American women are neither Squaws nor Princesses, but Corn Maidens in essence.

Upon their arrival in the New World, European explorers began to draw pictures and write descriptions of the land and the native peoples they encountered. However, their descriptions of the native women were negative and seemed to possess the characteristics attributed to the "Squaw". Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and the explorers who accompanied them depicted the women as submissive, compliant, docile and alternatively as intractable, lascivious and insatiable. Their approach was based on an already established pantheon of images of Amazons, mermaids, nymphs, wild women, hags and harlots. The women were a projection of the explorer's fears and fantasies. These fears and fantasies were related to the need to be exalted for their achievements (by depicting the "natives" as ferocious man-eaters) and the desire to promote their economic interests.

In 1493 in his letter to Isabella and Ferdinand, Columbus reports finding parrots, gold and warrior women. His warrior women are the legendary Amazons who live without men, and use bows and arrows to defend their island from invasion. Once a year they procreate with ferocious cannibals from a nearby island (Small and Jaffe, 1991: 2)

In 1502 explorer Amerigo Vespucci's observations go further than those of Columbus. In his description of New World women, his female archers do not merely consort with cannibals; Vespucci's warrior women are cannibals.

The documents of the early explorers inspired European artists and writers to create their own versions of these places and people. Nevertheless, they based their art more on myth and imagination than on reality. As a result, certain mythic figures soon dominated the images used in drawings and etchings of the New World. Among these, the Indian Queen came to be the symbol that best evoked for Europeans an exotic world full of riches. Representing this bountiful land the image of the Indian Queen was large and voluptuous. She resembled the "Squaw." Dark-skinned and bare-breasted, she was normally depicted holding or surrounded by pineapples and other fruits. She wore a crown of upright feathers, heavy Caribbean jewellery, animal skins or a skirt of leaves. Armed with spears and arrows, surrounded by her warriors, she appeared aggressive, militant. Often she rode an armadillo and rested her foot on the head of an alligator, the slain body of an animal or human enemy to show her power and dominance over all things (Green, 1975: 13)

The Amazonian Native Queen that became the sole representation for the Americas in 1575, remained to be so until about 1765. The Mother-Goddess figure - full-bodied, powerful, nurturing but dangerous - embodying the affluence and peril of the New World, began to change in time. Her skin colour became lighter and she became thinner. The new queen resembled the Greco-Roman goddesses like Athena or Diana, representing more a European, non-Indian America. In fact, the Statue of Liberty is reminiscent of this new queen. As the colonies began to move toward independence, the Queen's daughter, the more "American" and less Latin Princess became the new stereotypical image. She represented American Liberty and European Classical virtue translated into New World terms. Thus, the Princess image of the Native American woman came into being.

When real Indian women - Pocahontas and her sisters - made their appearance, the responses to the symbol grew more complex. As Rayna Green states, "the Pocahontas perplex emerged as a controlling metaphor in the American experience" (Green, 1975: 700). The Indian woman with her crude native nobility and the image of the savage continued to stand for the New World. Two prevailing stereotypes of native women in American culture, the violent filthy squaw that stood for her savagery and the beautiful Princess (Pocahontas) that stood for the Indian women's nobility, were both defined in terms of her relationships with male figures.

"Squaw", the Algonquian word for a married or mature woman that actually meant "vagina", is a demeaning term. Squaws shared the same vices attributed to Indian men - they were drunkards, thieves, corrupt and stupid. Their features were more "Indian" and "primitive." They were dark in colour, short and heavy.

White men being unable to form liaisons with the sacred Princess, turned to the Squaw as their sexual partners. In the case of the Squaw, the presence of overt and realised sexuality converted the image from the rather positive to negative. The Squaw could no longer follow the love-and-rescue pattern. Men who associated with her were also tainted and called "squaw men." In the traditional songs and stories that described relationships with white men Squaws were understood to be mere economic and sexual conveniences for men.

On the other hand, the condition to be a Princess was to save or help white men. The only good Indian, from the white perspective, whether male or female, was the one who rescued and helped white men (Pocahontas, Sacagewa, or the Little Mohee).

An old well-known Scottish ballad called "Young Beichan" or "Lord Bateman and the Turkish King's Daughter," as it is known in America, is about a young English adventurer who travels to a foreign land where the dark coloured natives practise a pagan religion. The adventurer is captured by the King (Pasha, Moor, Sultan) and is thrown to a dungeon to await his death. Nevertheless, before his execution, the pasha's daughter who has fallen in love with him rescues him and sends him home. She longs for the love of the stranger who has returned home, forgotten her and chosen a "noble lady" of his kind to be his bride. Finally, she follows him to his land and arrives on his wedding day upon which he chooses the darker but more beautiful Princess to be his wife. In most versions she becomes a Christian and the two live happily ever after (Green, 1975: 698)

The ballad story is very similar to the rescue tale of Pocahontas and John Smith. Although Pocahontas does not marry Smith, she marries John Rolfe, another Christian stranger, becomes a convert, bears him a child and goes to his homeland where she dies. In fact, Europeans were familiar with the motif long before John Smith told his salvation by the Indian Princess in 1624 in the Generall Historie of Virginie.

In many songs ("Jonathan Smith," "Chipeta's Ride") the Native American woman saves white men, her white lover. She is always called a Princess (or Chieftain's daughter) and like Pocahontas she violates the wishes and customs of her savage people. The majority of the Princesses are converts. The "civilised" Princess is portrayed as white to indicate her nobility, she is darker than Europeans, but more Caucasian than her people. In case the Princess cannot save her captive lover or her cruel father does not allow her to marry him, or if he does not return to her, she commits suicide. Unable to live without her loved one, the heroine leaps over a precipice ("The Indian Bride's Lament"). According to the white point of view, to be a "good" Indian the woman must defy her own people, exile herself from them, become white and even suffer death.

So the two prevalent stereotypical images of the Native American women are defined in terms of their relationships with men. The Squaw who represents the negative image needs to be destroyed for the progress of civilisation, yet her sister the angelic Princess stands for civilisation. Therefore, the Native American woman is squeezed between the two images and all the misconceptions and prejudices that come along with them.

Do the existing stereotypical images of the Indian women bear any truth? The autobiographies of Native American women provide an answer to this question. Author of a non-collaborative written autobiography (Sah-Gan-De-Oh: The Chief's Daughter), Lucille Winnie (Sah-Gan-De-Oh), states her purpose in sharing her experiences by saying: "It is my hope that those of you who read this will better understand us. We are not refugees from another world, feathered and warlike as the TV and movies depict us, but a proud race who love our heritage and are striving to keep alive our own culture" (quoted in Bataille and Sands, 1984: 23). The aim of autobiographies is to correct the misinformation about Indians, and to bring the Indian and white worlds together.

Doubtless all women from Native American tribes are not alike. Their autobiographies are proof of the individuality of Indian women, yet they do share certain characteristics that stand out as central to the identity of Indian women. They do not bear the attributes of the Squaws or the Princesses. They are neither subservient, nor lustful. They are devoted to their families and faithful to their husbands, they work for the well-being of their families and tribes. Unlike the Princess, they are not comforters and protectors of the white man, but of their own people. Like the Corn Maiden in Indian mythology, they are life-givers and the sustainers of life.

Many Indian tribes believe that their origin as a culture stems from the female. Women in Indian creation stories and the major female spirits in everyday life are viewed positively and revered. Old Spider Woman is the spirit that pervades everything. Corn Woman is one aspect of her, and Earth Woman is another and together they have created the Earth, creatures, plants and light. Her variety and multiplicity imply her complexity Woman is at the centre of all. (Allen, 1992: 13)

Other sacred female beings abound in Indian creation stories. One mythical Corn Mother planted bits of her heart to yield the first grain. Corn Mother or Selu, of the Cherokee, cut open her breast so that corn could spring forth and give life to the people. According to the Tewa Pueblo people, first mothers were known as Blue Corn Woman, the summer mother, and White Corn Maiden, the winter mother (Green, 1992: 21). A Zuni legend recounts that the people suffered famine for seven years because a young priest desired and attempted to touch the eldest of the Corn Maidens during the Corn Dance. The Corn Maidens were offended and departed taking all the corn of the village with them. It was only with the efforts of Paiyatuma, the sun youth Kachina, that the Corn Maidens were brought back. The Corn Maidens gave their trays of corn to the people. Each tray contained a different coloured corn (Campbell, 1993: 56-60)

In one of the earliest autobiographies, Pretty-Shield, Medicine Woman of the Crows, written by the ethnographer Frank B. Linderman, Pretty-Shield is from an important Crow family and has attained the highest status a woman can attain, she is a medicine woman. Due to her humility and reserve, she hardly ever mentions these facts. Born in the 1850s, the seventy-four-year-old Indian woman's life story clarifies the importance of her role in the well-being of her own family and tribe and undercuts the stereotypical notion that Indian women were simply drudges whose tasks and roles were merely supportive ones. Linderman, says of her, "She is a strong character, a good woman" (Pretty-Shield, 1974: 96). Similarly, a positive character assessment of Pretty-Shield is also provided by the Crow Agency superintendent, C.H.Asbury: "I do not know how some of these people could have lived without her. She is charity itself. She has mothered the motherless;" (96)

Maria Chona's Papago Woman, written by the anthropologist Ruth M.Underhill, is considered to be one of the autobiographies that best demonstrates the power and strength of traditional Native American women within their society. This autobiography is a document contradicting stereotypes that claim Indian women to be subservient, meek women. Maria Chona, born in 1845, tells her story at the age of 90. Her memory may not be as sharp as it could have been, but she comes across as an individual Indian woman who is conscious of her personal skills and position within her tribe. She witnesses an unusually wide variety of village events, and she participates fully in the customs and tribal ways of her people. She explains that she is all that a traditional Papago woman should be - dutiful daughter, responsible household manager and wife, ceremonial participant, source of traditional knowledge and words. There is both tragedy - she loses child after child - and humour in her life. The birth of her first child comes unexpectedly and her sister-in-law asks why she had not warned them: "Why didn't you tell us? We didn't know you were suffering in there. We heard you laughing." She responds, "Well, it wasn't my mouth that hurt. It was my middle" (Chona, 1979: 66)

A painful event in Maria Chona's life is her husband's taking a second wife:

Most men did not take two wives with us then, but the medicine men always did. In fact, they took four. But I had never thought my husband would do it. You see, we married so young, even before I had really become a maiden. It was as if we had been children in the same house. I had grown fond of him. We starved so much together .... I piled my clothes in a basket, and I put in a large butcher knife. I thought if he followed, I would kill him. Then I took my little girl and went away (Chona, 1979: 76)

As someone who understands her culture well, she knows that once the woman has been accepted into the house, the new marriage is irrevocable. Despite her grief and pain, she leaves her husband returns to her own village and family house with her daughter. Her husband thinks it is a joke and expects her to return in vain.

Acting so independently, Maria Chona shatters the most firmly-rooted stereotypes applied to Native American women. This is not the action of a submissive, repressed woman. Though she loves her husband, Chona renounces him and takes control over her life. Her second husband is also a medicine man and he teaches her to become a healer.

Vine Deloria Sr., the Sioux spokesman, further sees Native American women as adaptable, enduring and contemporary. These characteristics which refute the misconceptions and prejudices against Native American women are evident in Halfbreed, Maria Campbell's autobiography published in 1973. Yet, the title of the book needs clarification. Métis, mixed-blood, and the more pejorative term half-breed have been used in the United States and Canada to define an individual of mixed Indian and white ancestry. During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the label was applied most to those Indian males suspected of being particularly evil. (Bataille and Sands, 1984: 117). Maria Campbell's story is that of an individual Indian woman in Canada. It is the story of a woman who has struggled to survive the prejudice and poverty in her life. Campbell describes her bad marriage, drug addiction and prostitution, and drinking problems, nevertheless, there is hope because she finds strength in the teachings of the oldest and wisest member of the family, her great grandmother Cheechum. When Cheechum dies at the age of hundred and four, it is as if Maria Campbell is born to carry on, to become a model for the future generations. An important task of the woman is to pass down the stories of her people to help them survive. Maria will replace Cheechum as a teacher and guide to her people.

Cheechum was not stupid, as Indian women were thought to be; she realised the philosophy of divide and conquer that had been used against the native people. She understood that the enemy was greater than individuals. The government, the missionaries and the white people had worked together to destroy the spirit of the people. Maria remembers her words:

My Cheechum used to tell me that when the government gives you something, they take all that you have in return - your pride, your dignity, all the things that make you a living soul. When they are sure they have everything they give you a blanket to cover your shame .... She used to say that all our people wore blankets, each in his own way .... I wore one too (Campbell, 1973: 137)

It is much later that Maria learns the significance of Cheechum's words when she tells her: "Each of us has to find himself in his own way and no one can do it for us .... The blanket only destroys, it doesn't give warmth" (Campbell, 1973:150).

The blanket has served as a concrete stereotypical image to identify the Indian. Since Native Americans and blankets are inextricably linked in textbooks, postcards and the movies, the blanket metaphor is effective. As the expression, "to go back to the blanket" means to return to the Indian ways, the opposite, throwing away the blanket, is synonymous with getting rid of an image that has fostered dependence and encouraged prejudice. The last sentence of Campbell's narrative reads: "I no longer need my blanket to survive" (Campbell, 1973: 157). Campbell understands that her warmth can come in other ways and can free herself from all the negative images of herself and her people enhanced by the blanket. Maria finds her place in the politics of her people. Her struggle becomes a communal one. She has survived the personal struggle and is ready to work to make her life better for all her people.

As an Indian woman, Maria Campbell has proved her strength and endured all the incredible hardships in her life. Yet, her unsatisfactory relationships with men and her unsuccessful marriages lead Maria to analyse the attitudes of native men toward women:

The missionaries had impressed upon us the feeling that women were a source of evil. This belief, combined with the ancient Indian recognition of the power of women, is still holding back the progress of our people today (Campbell, 1973:144).

Although Europeans first associated the Americas with the Indian woman, they understood very little about the importance of women within these societies. Moreover, they brought along their own beliefs and concepts that derived from Christian ideals of womanhood. Publications about Indian women either ignored the power of women within tribal structures or evaluated it inadequately or underestimated it. Due to the nature of duties performed by women, they were accorded a low status by explorers, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists. Stories passed down through many generations reveal much about the beliefs, values and laws of Indian culture. The way society views the woman is indicated in the roles women play in these stories. Since most Indian tribes thought that the primary force in the universe was female, this understanding authorises all tribal activities, religious or social. Until the arrival of the Europeans the American Indian social system was woman-centred and women enjoyed their high status in the society. Yet, as a result of contact with non-Indians, the European male-dominant mentality was passed on to the Indian male in a short time and the status of women declined seriously over the centuries of white dominance. However, Indian women's autobiographies reveal that they are the backbones of their families and their tribes. These autobiographies emphasise the important role Native American women have played in the survival of their people. Being testimonies to the strength of women, women's stories contradict the usual stereotypes of the Squaw and refute the Princess images, implying that Native American women are life givers, Corn Maidens in essence. In her autobiography Papago Woman, Maria Chona says:

You see, we have power. Man have to dream to get power from the spirits and they think of everything that can - song and speeches and marching around, hoping that the spirits will notice them to give them some power. But we have power .... Children. Can any warrior make a child, no matter how brave and wonderful he is? (Chona, 1979: 92).