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The Fashion Writer and the Other 'S-Word'

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Christian Dior designer John Galliano's career imploded in February, when accusations that he made anti-Semitic remarks were followed by a video showing Galliano slurring, "I love Hitler." While the fashion industry was focused on that, an unfortunate aside from one of my favorite fashion writers, the venerable Suzy Menkes of the New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune, flew under the radar. In "Off With Her Headpiece," an article published in The New York Times's T Magazine about the jewels that Kate Middleton might wear to her wedding to England's Prince William, Menkes wrote (bold emphasis is mine):

Then there is a cabochon emerald collar that the stately Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth' s grandmother) made from her family emeralds... Diana took the stuffing out of that piece by wearing it around her head like a squaw on a tour of Australia in 1985.

This came to my attention via Jennine Jacob, a fashion blogger of Native American descent, who was upset by the use of the word "squaw." A number of people who commented on the article online were also angry. One wrote, "The word 'squaw' is racist, offensive, and insulting on so many levels that I can't believe anyone in the 21st century would use it...." A day after the article appeared online, the editors of T Magazine replied in the comments: "Dear readers: We understand the sensitivity and wish that we had chosen different words. No offense was intended."

I was curious about whether Menkes's use of the word was considered appropriate by experts on Native Americans. As it turns out, those experts disagree on the original meaning of "squaw," but they all agree that the word is now seen as offensive. Suzan Shown Harjo -- a Native American poet, writer, lecturer, curator and policy advocate -- has argued for decades that what she calls the "s-word" originally meant "vagina," and is therefore a slur. When she made that argument in a 1992 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, it had broad impact.


Ives Goddard
, now senior linguist emeritus at the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology, has always disputed Harjo's translation, saying the word "squaw" derives "from an innocent term for woman." Despite the harmless origin, he notes, "This word is now generally considered offensive and is so labeled in all current dictionaries of English."

Anthropologist Margaret Bruchac, like Goddard, believes the word originally had a benign meaning. As a result, she has argued that "squaw" should be rehabilitated from its "dirty word" status. "This labeling of my indigenous language as obscene is a racist statement," she wrote in 1999. "It makes no sense for Native people to cling to and accept a wrong translation."

Nevertheless, the consensus is that the word, regardless of origin, is an insult in today's usage. Some states have even changed place names to remove "squaw" references. So I asked the New York Times why its editors didn't change the online version of the story. Suzy Menkes wasn't available for comment, but Arthur Brisbane, the public editor for the Times, said:

I understand your and others' concern about the use of the word "squaw." The Times, though, doesn't retroactively change the content of its stories. The obvious exception is in the case of corrected errors. In the case of word choice, such changes are not made retroactively. The policy reflects The Times's view that it creates a record with its contents and it should not attempt to change that record, after the fact.

That made me wonder if Menkes's use of squaw was factually correct. Did Native American women usually wear headbands? It is difficult to generalize. Tara Prindle Block, the author/developer of NativeTech.org, which focuses on the arts and technology of Eastern Woodland Indian Peoples, says of tribes in what is now southern New England: "It is true, and is documentable both historically and prehistorically, for Native American women of many tribes to wear woven bands around their heads."

But Mary Spanos, a textile anthropologist who specializes in the people of the Southeast, says headbands weren't worn in that region. She also said, "There were many, many groups of native peoples populating North America before the Europeans arrived and they were all quite different."

Bottom line: Suzy Menkes's comparison of Diana's fashion choice to that of a "squaw" was not only hurtful but seems to have been a bit of a stretch in terms of accuracy. And no analogy of any kind was was needed to explain the style to readers. Menkes simply could have said that Diana wore a necklace as a headband. Instead, she makes a reference that in no way sounds like a compliment -- more like a sneer. And that strikes me as sad.