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What We Say Matters: The Power of Words in American and Indigenous Histories

by Bryan C. Rindfleisch

“The real reason we have a ways to go in understanding [American] Indians…has little to do with how deftly or clumsily indigenous peoples have been stitched into the American tapestry… The root of the problem lies in the very words used to tell stories about olden times.”

“Words…[have] real effects for Native peoples and for the course of American history. They were and are tools in the imperial project of relieving [American] Indians of their sovereignty and their land.”

-James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians”


The words we choose to write and say have great meaning and power. Whether it is politics or the media, or the words exchanged between a parent and child, words are fraught with meaning and importance. The words we use day in and day out convey messages to others. The classroom is no different, where what we teach and say to our students about the past and present is absorbed by our students and infiltrates their vocabularies. And this is where historians have a particular problem; we perpetuate fictions and stereotypes in the language that we use to talk about Indigenous Americans and to describe their histories and cultures. In fact, our words—such as “the Natives,” “Indians,” “tribes,” “bands,” “wilderness,” “hunters,” “nomads,” “massacres,” “scalping,” and “war party”—have consequences, no matter how unintended, because our words become our students’ own.

Take for instance the non-Native students who enroll in my general history survey class, HIST 1101: Introduction to American History. Unless these individuals benefitted from unusual circumstances, they have consistently been exposed to a narrative of U.S. history that frames Indigenous Americans as either relics of the past, subhuman foils to European settlement (ala colonialism), or tragic figures who were inevitably removed out of the way of the expansion of United States. This is reflected in the words that students choose to describe Native peoples and their histories in our class discussions and especially in their written assignments. I have repeatedly had to talk myself down from making paper planes out of students’ papers that use phrases to the effect of “the Indians attacked frontier settlements,” “Natives were nomadic hunters,” “the Indians lived in tipis,” “the Native were unavoidably removed,” and other problematic language. Even when we as a class grapple with Indigenous American involvement in the World Wars, political activism in the 1960s through 1980s, and their visibility today with events such as the protests over a proposed oil pipeline through the Standing Rock reservation, students still utilize words that belittle Native Americans and their complexity, diversity, and sovereignty. You can only imagine the toll that this takes on Native students who share the same spaces with non-Native students in my class, who are subjected to this endless barrage of disparaging words inside and outside of the classroom, which is only one set of micro-aggressions in a larger pattern of erasing Native peoples, histories, and cultures from the United States.

But guess what? We—historians, scholars, and teachers—are the ones to blame for this, because we know better and have failed to be deliberate in the words we use to describe the interactions between Indigenous Americans and the United States. Our non-Native students did not simply pick these words or articulate these ideas out of thin air, they learned this language from somewhere, and we failed at some point to step in and provide an alternative lexicon.

Now I must confess, this is as much a self-reflection as it is a polemical piece of writing, for I continue to struggle with my language and the power it has to influence the minds and vocabularies of students. This past year, I empowered students to interrupt lecture or discussion anytime that I used a word or phrase that implied savagery, backwardness, inevitable violence, or declension. I got to return the favor. Needless to say, it was a sobering experiment, and I myself was not immune to being called out in front of the class. But by the end of the semester, students remarked about the incredible change in the ways that they talked about and thought of Indigenous Americans and their histories and cultures. These were real people now, who not only lived in the modern world, but fought every day to be recognized as a distinct people separate from that of the myths and stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood and the media, history textbooks, and what had been spoon-fed to non-Native students in the past.

While I was heartened by this experience, it did not take long for it to come crashing down around me. For the sake of anonymity, I recently attended an international conference on Early American history, which featured an all-star lineup of historians past, present, and future. But what started as an inspiring exploration of the field quickly turned sour, and for me, exposed the cracks in what we call the study of “Early America.” For the most part, Native Americans were glaringly absent from the conference, but more damning than this was when scholars talked about Indigenous peoples, they were merely “the Natives” who were peripheral or unimportant to the events that unfolded in the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies. Or when Native Americans were necessary to the story, “the Natives” were simply those who committed acts of violence—be it “massacres,” “scalping,” and “inhumane torture”—and thereby assumed the role of the proverbial boogeymen to Europeans. Scholars at this conference not only characterized Indigenous peoples as violent, but time and again lumped “the Natives” together, as if the many and distinct peoples and nations who comprise the Anishinaabeg or the Haudenosaunee were all one people. This is beyond lazy; it is damaging. Can you imagine that if this is what we historians are writing and saying to one another, what are we teaching and telling our students about Indigenous Americans and their histories?

At this point, readers might wonder what particular words are problematic. For the most part, scholars and students have divested themselves of obvious words like “savage” (hopefully) and “discovery” (maybe) to describe Native Americans and the eras of contact and interaction in the Americas. But what about terms like “the Natives” or “the Indians,” which ignore the cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous Americans? Or how about referring to Native peoples as “hunters” or “nomads” who roamed about the “wilderness” or the “plains,” despite the fact that the majority of Native American civilizations were complex agricultural societies who developed farming techniques that rivaled if not eclipsed those in Europe, and who built and resided in urban centers like Cahokia that exceeded the population of medieval London? And how many times have readers, when describing the conflicts between Indigenous and European peoples, either read or invoked the words “massacre,” “scalping,” “slaughter,” “war party,” or “savage violence”? Unfortunately, these are the words that not only characterize Native-European interactions in the Americas, but are central to the larger narrative of American history. This is in spite of the fact that Indigenous and European peoples collaborated, compromised, and negotiated with one another on a daily basis over the course of three centuries, which I might add is a period of time longer than the existence of the United States. This is not to suggest that violence was not a part of these interactions, of course it was. But we should question why we— more often than not—linguistically frame Native-European exchanges around conflict rather than intimacy or negotiation. Is it because it is inconvenient to the larger narrative of American history? I think so. None of this is not to mention the other problematic and frankly derogatory terms like “half-breed,” those individuals who lived in two worlds, or “settlers,” those who did not so much as settle as they invaded, and other such words.

Each and every one of these words—and you can imagine others—has consequences. As already mentioned, this vocabulary overgeneralizes if not insidiously disguises the diversity and complexity of Native America. Unfortunately, this prompts students to think of all Indigenous Americans as one and the same, as if one person can speak for all Indigenous peoples, which is not only incredibly uncomfortable for Native students, but downright offensive. In addition, such words still position Native Americans as sideshows to American history, or as unimportant to the larger narrative, in which they are peripheral figures or mindless pawns in the imperial contests for North America during the fifteenth to nineteenth-centuries. In fact, Indigenous peoples only become important to the story when the United States expands westward in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and this again situates Native peoples as either obstacles or opponents of the American nation. While this all sounds rather antiquated, and we might tell ourselves we have moved beyond this type of narrative, the truth is we have not. Because the words we use, and the ways in which we weave Indigenous Americans into the narrative of the United States, tells the same story; it reinforces for students that Native Americans are either “the Other” or were inevitably destined for removal and declension.

As a consequence, this is how many non-Native students perceive Indigenous Americans today; as relics of a lost era, poverty-stricken populations confined to reservations, a people apart from the United States, all despite the fact that Native Americans (by and large) are in the midst of cultural, religious, economic, and political revitalization. As you can imagine, such sentiments draw from and perpetuate the destructive stereotypes that students already have about Indigenous Americans, which devalues the real world struggles of Native peoples who continue to combat colonialism today, whether that manifests in their legal and political battles over sovereignty, or attempting to reconstruct and reclaim their languages or cultural and religious practices. All of this demonstrates that the words we convey to students has consequences. As James H. Merrell put it best, we remain “shackled to a lexicon crafted by the victors in the contest for America, one fashioned to explain, even justify, how things turned out,” and this has profound repercussions for Indigenous Americans today.[1]

Whether we want to admit it or not, then, scholars and teachers are part of the colonial process and perpetuate a very particular form of colonialism with our language. As Jodi Byrd, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Jean O’Brien, Mishuana Goeman, and other Native scholars have long illustrated in their work, “colonization [still] matters” because Indigenous peoples remain “in a colonial relationship with the United States.”[2] Yet we—as scholars and teachers—have it in our power to control what we say and contribute to that relationship, and I dare say it is our responsibility to do so. It is not a matter of political correctness, it is about decolonizing our language and ourselves, to soul-search and reflect on the ways in which we colonize or do damage with our words. Further, we have a responsibility to our students, particularly in the wake of events such as Standing Rock. It might be said we have reached a pivotal point, where Indigenous Americans are not only visible to the general public, but are defying and undermining the very tropes, stereotypes, and words we have constructed and used to describe Native Americans for centuries. This is our chance to be better than we have been in the past, to come to terms with the consequences of our words, and to separate ourselves from a sinister vocabulary that distorts and harms Native peoples and communities today. In short, what we say to our students now—the words we choose to describe Indigenous Americans and their histories from here on out—matters, because our students assume our words as their own.

Notes

[1]James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William & Mary Quarterly, 69 (July 2012), 458.

[2]Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2011), xiii; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), 14.

Author

BRYAN C. RINDFLEISCH is an assistant professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. His work focuses on the intersections of colonial, Indigenous, imperial, and Atlantic histories, peoples, and places in eighteenth-century North America. He has published articles previously in Ethnohistory, Native South, History Compass, and New Hibernia Review, among others. He is currently co-editor of the interdisciplinary forum, H-AmIndian.