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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

This item comes from SFGate.com, 5/12/04. The following blurb was on the main page:

Skiing Squaw, Welfare Waif?

This woman lived in Tahoe and made monthly trips to fleece SF of $310. Finally, it's figured out. Matier & Ross. Chronicle

When you clicked on the link, you got this article:

Lake Tahoe woman dips into S.F.'s homeless till

Phillip Matier, Andrew Ross
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle

For years, anecdotes have been flying around about homeless people traveling from surrounding counties to reap San Francisco's generous benefits — but even city officials' eyes bugged out when they discovered a welfare commuter coming all the way from Lake Tahoe.

The case involves a young woman in her early 20s who, for more than a year, allegedly took the bus to San Francisco to collect $310 a month in general assistance.

The woman, whose name is being withheld because of state welfare privacy rules, showed up for her city appointments like clockwork and always seemed to have a sunny disposition.

"And when people are nice, you tend not to suspect them," said city Department of Human Services investigator Diana Christensen.

The sunny welfare waif might still be commuting in for her monthly cash had she not made the mistake of putting down a Tahoe-area address two years ago when she was treated at a lakeside hospital.

When the visit popped up on welfare records, San Francisco officials started asking questions. The welfare commuter responded by signing a sworn declaration that she had been in the Lake Tahoe area for a day or two, and didn't actually live there.

Suspicious investigators, however, checked her electronic food stamp card. They found that of the last 110 times it had been used, 100 were in the Tahoe area.

One call led to another, and finally a welfare investigator who happened to be vacationing in Tahoe stopped by the address the woman had given.

It was a hotel. The manager said the woman had been living there for the past two years, until she was evicted in April 2003.

Apparently, the welfare wanderer had moved on to other hotels in the Tahoe area. She had also been getting welfare in Nevada.

The case has been sent to the San Francisco district attorney's office. Only one problem — welfare workers here haven't seen the woman in three months.

"Whether they will be able to find her is another question," said investigator Christensen. "She's pretty much under the radar."

Rob's comment
The word "squaw" is offensive to Native people under any circumstance. This article shows why. It compares money-grubbing welfare cheat to an Indian woman. Whoever wrote the headline thinks "squaw" means a low-grade, morally-challenged person—equivalent to a beggar or a bum. That fits with a classic stereotype of Indians: as wretched mendicants waiting by the road for a handout, welfare check, or bottle of booze.

Several months after the fact, a correspondent questioned my analysis of this stereotype. Here are her comments and my reply:

Dear Mr. Schmidt,

I am a student at Pomona College currently taking a course called "Contemporary Native American Literature." My professor directed me to your "Stereotype of the Month" site for evidence of the bombardment of sterotypes in the media.

However, I believe with one of your entries you miscontrued the title "Skiing Squaw, Welfare Waif?" (http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stype458.htm) The article reports a women's journey from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco for a welfare check. You said, "[The title] compares money-grubbing welfare cheat to an Indian woman." However I don't believe Metier and Ross are making any such comparison. Squaw refers to Squaw Valley, a ski resort located in Lake Tahoe (www.squaw.com). And since the women is from Lake Tahoe and was rediciously making such a trip for a welfare check, "Skiing Squaw" was written to mean that she is from Lake Tahoe. I understand that the word "Squaw" is offensive however I don't believe the fault lies with the reporters but rather with those who named the establishment of Squaw Valley.


Re http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stype458.htm:

I know about Squaw Valley. The question is whether residents of Squaw Valley are called "Squaws." I've never heard that. Do you have any evidence of it?

I did a quick search for "Squaws and Squaw Valley" in Google. The only references I saw were historical or mistaken (spelling "Squaw's" without the apostrophe). If people commonly used "Squaws" to refer to residents of Squaw Valley, it would be commonplace in Google. Instead, I didn't see any sign of it in the first few dozen search hits.

Your surmise also goes against grammatical common sense. If residents of Squaw Valley are called Squaws, the headline could've read "Squaw Skier, Welfare Waif." That would've kept the parallelism intact. Both "Squaw" and "Welfare" would have been adjectives modifying descriptive nouns, "Skier" and "Waif."

If you're right, the headline should have read that to avoid confusion. Instead, it drew a parallel between "squaw" and "waif." One is a poor, pitiable child. Why wouldn't the other be a poor, pitiable woman?

Even if your surmise was correct—which, again, I see no evidence for—I'd say the headline had a double meaning. It wasn't referring just to the woman's residence. It was referring to her residence and it was using "squaw" as a synonym for a low-class, dependent, beggar-type woman.

The double meaning would be like, say, calling a black football player a monkey. Which announcer Howard Cosell did in 1972. He may have meant the remark innocently, as a comment on the player's size and agility, but people rightly criticized him for the implications.

One can't verify a headline writer's thinking, of course. But there's no apparent evidence to support your claim. Show me that people call the women of Squaw Valley "Squaws" these days and then we'll talk.

Rob Schmidt

P.S. Thank your professor for referring people to my site!

Another correspondent weighs in
And I respond:

>> Not that you would know about it unless you live in California or Nevada (and possibly more southern states), there is a skiing resort called Squaw Valley USA around in the Lake Tahoe area. <<

I do live in California. I know about Squaw Valley.

>> So, I think the editor was trying to include that into the headline, more than the ignorance for the meaning of the word. <<

Native people have protested the use of "squaw" in place names such as Squaw Valley. Even if you're right, the editors ignored this problem. In fact, they exacerbated the problem by applying the "Squaw" of "Squaw Valley" to a woman.

There's no evidence the woman lived or even skied at Squaw Valley, making the name that much more inappropriate. Would you use the word "squaw" for any woman who ever passed through Squaw Valley? I wouldn't. It's really no different from calling a woman "squaw" out of the blue.

As I said in the posting above, there's little or no justification for calling a resident of Squaw Valley a "squaw." It would be like calling a resident of Casper (Wyoming) "Casper the friendly ghost." A person who lives in Squaw Valley isn't an Indian woman and a person who lives in Casper isn't a spook.

Besides, as far as we know, this woman wasn't a resident of Squaw Valley and had never skied there. So you're suggesting the article labeled her a squaw because she skied somewhere in the vicinity of Squaw Valley? If she had passed through Butte, Montana, would the article have called her a Butte-Head? If she had lived in Pittsburgh, would it be fair to call her the "Pitts"?

You see, even if your premise is right, this name-calling makes no sense. Why in the world would you apply part of a place name to someone who doesn't live there?

More important, we have no reason to believe the editors were thinking this way. My conclusion is more reasonable: They applied the "squaw" label because they thought the woman was acting like a "squaw."


P.S. The pictures on this page have nothing to do with the Chronicle article in question.

Related links
Squaw:  the s-word
Indians as welfare recipients

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