The P-Word: It’s Not Okay


In 2008, America released the redesign of the $1 coin: a gold dollar depicting Shoshone woman Sacagawea, the famous Native American who guided Lewis and Clark on their journey east of the Mississippi. On her back, Sacagawea wears her son Jean-Baptiste, born midway through the expedition. This is probably the most recognizable babywearing image in the United States. Ask Americans to describe it, and they’re likely to use the word “papoose.”

Because that is a papoose, right? A baby, especially a Native American baby, worn on the back. That’s what most of (white) America calls it. That’s what lots of old people call my sons when they see them snuggled up on me in Target. “Look at that sweet little papoose,” they say. And that’s what we see all over babywearing boards: post of fat-cheeked squishes with the words “my little papoose,” or “papoose in unicorn hair and elfskin wrap,” or “DH calls her our papoose.”

This is not okay.

Sacagawea_dollar_obverseBefore we discuss why, let’s set some ground rules.

  1. No one reading this, unless they rock a white hood and burn crosses on the weekends, means to be a racist.
  2. It’s possible to call systems racist. This is not the same as calling the people who make up those systems hate-spewing bigots. Being part of a racist system does not mean that you, personally, hate minorities.
  3. It’s possible to call a word racist. This is not the same as calling the person who uses it a racist – if that person is ignorant of the word’s racist implications. (If someone knows a word is racist [think the n-word], and continues to use it anyway, it’s fair to say that person is a racist, and probably an insensitive asshole).
  4. There are lots of types of privilege. You can enjoy white privilege, or male privilege, or Western privilege, or class privilege. Enjoying one does not mean you don’t experience others – i.e. you may be white, and hence benefit from a system that rewards whiteness at the expense of people of color, while simultaneously laboring under a system that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. This is not the suffering Olympics, people. 
  5. People have a stake in the ways they are named and identified. Denying that is a form of oppression. Appropriating that identification can also be a form of oppression.
  6. In America, the politically correct term for the people Europeans stole land from and then systematically slaughtered in “Native American. In Canada, “native” is grossly offensive, and they use “First Nations” instead. I use NA here when talking about the US and NA/FN people when talking about both.
  7. If you believe you are right all the time, and everyone else is wrong, and you are not interested in listening with an open mind, stop reading and go watch Fox News.

So back to the word “papoose.”

According to some sources, “papoose” comes from the Narragansett word for “child.” The word came to mean any Native American/First Nations child, regardless of tribal affiliation. This is not acceptable. As activist and Canadian Babywearing School educator Arie Brentnall-Compton says,

Papoose (as meaning a carried baby) is very shorthanded term. Each group has a current carrying practice (or lack of) as well as traditional practices. Referring to something as “papoose” essentially shorthands that wide variety of individual cultures to mean a FN [First Nations] baby, which is obviously supremely offensive.

Basically, when you use the word “papoose” to mean “carried baby,” you collapse all NA/FN culture into a monolithic entity. You deny individual identity and elide cultural difference. It’s akin to saying all NA/FN people wear feathers and smoke peace pipes in their teepees, or all Southerners burn crosses and lynch black people.

But what about using the word “papoose” to mean a carried white baby? That’s okay, right?


Why? Well, first, because NA/FN people say so, and since they’re the ones who were brutally murdered, incarcerated on reservations, ripped from their families and forced into residential schools, and continue to live in a state of cultural genocide, they get to tell us not say “papoose.” Respecting that belief shows a respect for their culture and identity. Do you care about Native Americans/ First Nation people? Do you feel that European colonization (which continues to this day) was a bad thing? Then don’t say “papoose.” As one NA mother says,

The “I don’t think it’s offensive, you’re too sensitive, you’re looking for a fight, etc” comments are truly hurtful. By making those comments, my voice as an indigenous woman is being silenced. I feel like they believe that their right to use the word is more important than the genocide (that still continues to this day) against Natives and the appalling history behind the word. Regardless if some use it as a term of endearment or to refer to a baby carrier, it’s truly hurtful to the majority of Natives

Of course, some NA/FN people don’t find the word offensive. Some have informed me that their grandparents used it as a term of endearment. Unfortunately, they don’t speak for every single NA/FN person in the whole world for all of time. Nor, last I checked, has your half-Cherokee grandmother been elected King of All The Native Americans and First Nations People.

A White Mountain Apache mama says that, in her culture, papoose means “a dead baby in a cradle board hanging in a tree or other structure.”

So let’s defer to her, ‘kay?

It’s the right of NA/FN people to find the word acceptable. But many feel the word minimalizes their feelings, disrespects their culture, and denigrates their own experiences. Out of respect for those people, we should avoid using the word “papoose.” Period. There are lots of other words out there. Pick one.

Maybe you disagree with this. Maybe you feel that words evolve, that it’s your right to say whatever you want, that this is all overly politically correct. You can think that. But out of respect for the feelings of others, please do not use the p-word. Think of it like the r-word, or calling someone “gay” instead of “stupid.”

If you still think you have the right to use the p-word, because it doesn’t matter what you call things, that’s okay too, honky motherfucker.

What? You find the term honky motherfucker offensive? I find that irrelevant to this discussion, honky.

See how that works? Unpleasant, isn’t it?

Just don’t say it.

In case you think I’m writing out of liberal guilt, here are some other voices to speak on the subject:

**many thanks to members of the Facebook group Babywearers of Color for their input on this post. I am continually grateful for your willingness to educate the community at large. **

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