Squaws and Princesses or Corn Maidens: Misconceptions and

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at xxxxxxxxxxx.xxx
Mon Dec 4 21:38:35 MST 2000


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

by Meldan Tanr?sal

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

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

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

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:

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

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

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

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

 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:



Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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