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On the Use of Colonizing Language

Steven Newcomb
9/13/12

In English grammar we find pronouns for the first person plural, “we,” and the possessive adjective, “our.” In this column, I’d like to discuss the possessive adjective “our,” and the negative effect of Indian people using “we” or “our,” when talking about the United States.

An example is an Indian person speaking of the United States, and saying: “Well, when we invaded Iraq…” etc. Another example would be an Indian person referring to the President of the United States as “our president.”

Chad Yazzie used the colonizing possessive adjective in a recent column about the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In his column, Mr. Yazzie says of the U.S. Constitution: “Our constitutional framework appoints federalism as a principle to measure and define the range of governmental authority that states and the federal government exercise with respect to one another.” (emphasis added)

As an Indian person and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, the question arises: “Why did Mr. Yazzie unthinkingly use a colonizing term by referring to the U.S. Constitution as "our" constitutional framework?” When did it ever become “ours” as Indian nations and peoples? And isn’t this simply part of the political assimilation that U.S. Indian policy makers envisioned for us in the 19th and 20th centuries? Indian nations and peoples had nothing at all to do with the formation of the U.S. Constitution. Even though the Onondaga Nation may have played some advisory role through one of their chiefs, Indian nations were not parties to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized this fact on several occasions, as in Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak - 501 U.S. 775 (1991), where the Court held that the Indians "were not even parties" to the Constitutional Convention, and as in Idaho v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho - 521 U.S. 261 (1997), where it ruled again that Indians were not part of the "plan of the [Constitutional] Convention" and therefore "should be accorded the same status as foreign sovereigns."

Another example of writing in the colonizing mode is a document recently issued by the National Congress of American Indians, entitled “Current Tax Needs in Indian Country.” In the first paragraph we find a sentence that uses the colonizing third person possessive pronoun adjective: “As you know, Indian tribal governments have a unique status in our federal system under the U.S. Constitution…” (emphasis added)

There is something clearly amiss when the largest Indian organization operating in the United States claims that the federal system of the United States is “our” system as American Indians, and conceptually places originally free and independent Indian nations in a domination/subordination framework by thinking of them as existing “under the U.S. Constitution.”

Referring to the federal system of the United States as “our federal system” and referring to Indian nations as being “under” the U.S. Constitution is politically self-assimilating. And it is all the more disturbing that no one seems to have noticed this colonizing language and made certain that it was changed before it is circulated throughout Indian Country and to different sectors of the United States.

A colonized mind is a terrible waste. We take a significant step toward decolonizing our minds when we awaken to the nature of language, and the fact that a shift in language creates a shift in reality. For example, a shift from the terminology of “tribes” to the terminology of “nations” results in a shift from the reality of tribes to the reality of nations. We need to be able to engage in mental decolonization, but we first of all need the desire to decolonize ourselves, and the discipline to do so.

A shift in reality can certainly occur in a one-on-one conversation, if only for the duration of that specific conversation. However, in order to create a long term and durable shift in reality, we have to constitute a different reality. Language is the means we have of constituting reality. We can do this by making our shift in terminology and behavior disciplined and long term so that it becomes entirely accepted and habitual by the great mass of the community. Eventually, the shifted reality becomes institutionalized and taken for granted as “that’s just the way things are.”

Learning and speaking our own languages, conducting our own ceremonies and rituals, learning how to tell liberating narratives by acknowledging our original free and independent existence as nations and peoples, and speaking of our traditional territories as still existing as our traditional territories rather than referring to them in the past tense, are some examples of things we can do. There are certainly many other examples.

Finding traditional models of knowledge and wisdom and then figuring out ways to follow those models in our everyday lives is another wonderful example of how we can engage in a process of decolonizing or liberating ourselves. Additionally, let’s make certain we rid ourselves of the tendency to think, speak, and write using colonizing language, while conceptually putting ourselves “under” and “subject to” their mental constructs.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee,Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. He is also the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

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swrussel's picture
Barack Obama is my President. I also have a Principal Chief. His name is BIll John Baker, and he has different powers and duties. Which brings me to my Constitution, which I have sworn on several occasions to "preserve, protect, and defend." The fact that it has no application in my tribal court does not make it any less mine. Am I colonized? Sure I am, or I would hail from the Southeastern US rather than Oklahoma. I enjoy the freedom to return to my ancestral lands, but that was not always the case. My ancestors were removed at gunpoint. Should I return, I must purchase or rent the soil where my ancestors are buried. These are forms of land tenure outside my traditions, but I must live with them or be styled a thief by those who are, in the historical sense, thieves. Is this colonization still in doubt? Not at all. If we had the power to contest it, they have nowhere to go, so there would be no choice but a fight to the death. What kind of sense does that make without regard to whom would emerge victorious? The issue, then, is the degree to which we shall maintain control of our own lives and the degree to which our customs will have to change. One way to characterize the issue is "federalism:" which government has authority to make which decisions as among world, national, state, and tribal? International law, federal law, state law, and tribal law do not always mesh smoothly and it's our patriotic task, in my opinion, to maximize the degree to which other systems have to accommodate us and minimize the degree to which we have to accommodate them. I'm not clear how fantasy about throwing off the colonial yoke advances that goal? Or, specifically, why Mr. Yazzie is a sinner?
swrussel
wanbli's picture
Your Right Again!!!! Thanks for the free education, that matters!!!!
wanbli
basnavely's picture
The words one uses are vitally important as they provide the framework for conceptual thinking. I did not write the US Constitution, vote to ratify it or sign it. I did, however, chose to support it as a United States citizen who has taken various oaths, including as a police officer and as an attorney in federal and state court systems. Those oaths did not require that I uphold or support "my" constitution, but the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Michigan. That is a good thing, because “my constitution” is a somewhat ill-tempered one, made especially so after practicing law for slightly more than two decades. Beware the use of possessives – if something is “yours”, you own it and are responsible for it.
basnavely
wanbli's picture
IF YOU SERVE THIS UNJUST ORDER OF THIS U.S. EMPIRE, THAT CONTINUES, TO USE INDIAN POLICIES AND LAWS AS A RACIST AND A VIOLENT LEGAL FALSE RIGHTEOUS TOOL TO DESTROY MY RED PEOPLE, THE RED PEOPLE AND THEIR SOVEREIGN NATIONHOOD'S, AND TO MAINTAIN THIS TAX PAYER STRUCTURE OF OPPRESSION AND GENOCIDE, WHERE THE DATA SHOWS WE ARE BEING EXTERMINATED. THAT MEAN EVERY INDIGENOUS CITIZEN OF EARTH, WHO ARE FORCED THROUGH THE DEHUMANIZATION OF IMPERIALIST CAPITALISM OF OUR RED HUMANITY AND HOMELAND'S, THROUGH HISTORICAL PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE; SHOW THAT YOU AND THE BIA AND IRA SUPPORTERS AND VETERANS OF THE US, NOT THE "AKCITAH"-WARRIOR OF OUR RED SOVEREIGN SOCIETIES ARE COMPLICIT TO THE CRIMES OF GENOCIDE, TO ALL FIRST NATION PEOPLE OF TURTLE ISLAND. YOU ONLY SERVE THE US AND THEIR GOD OF WAR. THE TIME YOUR IS COMEING IN THIS AGE, THEY MUST TASTE DEATH FOR THE LAST TIME IN ALL EXISTENCES, AND WHEN THEY DO, THEY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MAKE UP ANY EXCUSES TO THE GOD THE CHRIST THEY CONFESS AS A NATION AND ROBBED FOR THE LAST 500 YRS ON THIS CONTINENT, CALLED TURTLE ISLAND. FLESH AND BLOOD WILL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF THE SON OF GOD! ANY WAY OUR, ALLEGIANCE TO THIS OR ANY EMPIRE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL. THAT THE ESSENCE OF FREEDOM! LIKE IN NAZI GERMANY! WOULD YOU SERVE, THIS EMPIRE IF AMERICA BECAME LIKE THE EMPIRE THAT HITLER AND HIS COLLABORATORS CREATED, IN THE NAME OF NATIONALISM AND GOOD OLD WHITE FOLKS AND VETERANS? WELL WAKE UP!!! THEY ARE THE DESIGNERS OF THIS KIND OF DEHUMANIZATION, SO WHY WOULD A SO-CALLED BOASTFUL BIA SUPPORTER VETERAN SERVE A NATION OF INDIAN KILLERS, HATERS, MURDERS, RAPIST, THIEVES, AND JUST PLAIN COVETOUS OF MOTHER EARTH FROM THE GREAT SPIRIT? DIDN'T YOUR SO-CALLED AUTHENTIC TRADITIONAL FAMILY TELL YOU HOW YOU MUST BECOME A MAN IN THE RED WAYS OF AUTHENTIC WARRIORS.IF ANY VETERAN WANTS TO BRAGG A HIS A WARRIOR FOR THE US, OK!!!!. BUT YOU ARE NOT A WARRIOR OF CRAZY HORSE, SITTING BULL OR ANY OTHER RESISTER ANCESTORS OF ALL RED NATIONHOOD'S, TO YOUR BELOVED WHITE NATIONHOOD. YOU INDIAN WAR HERO GOT TO GET YOUR HEADS OUT OF YOUR BUTT AND START USING YOUR RED HEART, INSTEAD OF YOU WHITE BRAINWASHED MINDS, BECAUSE THE US IS COME WITH THEY'RE CORPORATE FRIENDS TO TAKE WHAT THEY DIDN'T IN THE BEGINNING. YOUR SOULS OF YOURS INDIGENOUS LITTLE CHILDREN OF EARTH MOTHER. IF YOU ARE A VETERAN BECAUSE THEY MADE YOU LIKE THAT.....BECAUSE YOU CHOOSE TO, AT THE EXPENSE OF TRUTH, JUSTICE TO COME AND LIBERATE OUR INCARCERATED, MISTREATED, DISRESPECTED, HATED AND ENSLAVED, DEHUMANIZED IN THE POVERTY OF THE WHITE MAN, MY RED PEOPLE BY YOU! MR BIG PROUD INDIAN US VETERAN OF THIS EMPIRE, TO FINALLY SET THE RECORD STRAIT. YOU ARE NOT AND WILL NOT EVER, NOR NEVER HAVE, AS A US VETERAN, BE AUTHENTIC TO THE GREAT SPIRITS AND ALL THE SPIRITS OF OUR ANCESTORS, BECAUSE YOU GAVE AWAY YOUR HUMANITY, THAT HE DEAD FOR!!!! VETERINARIANS DESTROY POW WOWS AND GENUINE SPIRITUAL PRAYERS BY THEY'RE COLONIZED IMMATURITY AS A GROW WARRIOR OF A AUTHENTIC RED NATIONHOOD, NOT THE IMAGINARY ONE, CALLED AMERICA! WANBLI 2012
wanbli
swrussel's picture
There's no need to shout. The revolution is not on a rigid time line, so we can talk it over. ALL allegiance to ALL governments is "provisional." If you have been though US armed forces basic training, you are taught the duty to disobey unlawful orders...but that you'd better be damned sure. This is the principle that the US created at Nuremberg, over the objections of both Stalin and Churchill. This idea of an international rule of law and "crimes against humanity" is very new, and the US was critical to the creation. Lest you consider me an imperialist capitalist dupe, I'm aware that this country has obstructed the progress of international human rights law at every turn since, most spectacularly when President Bush II "un-signed" President Clinton's agreement to the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court. I did not know he could do that, but without the votes in the Senate to ratify the treaty, whether we can "un-sign" is moot. Now, to make this criticism, I have to, in a sense, stand outside my US citizenship. If I were to view the US as likely to attack tribal nations and "finish the job," as it were, I would be standing inside my tribal citizenship....but no tribal governments are of that opinion, and I'm aware of no tribal government taking a position on the Rome Statute or relating it to the Indian wars. The connection is certainly there to be made; I'm just telling you nobody has yet made it. Governments are about policy. Individual Indians, whether sages or wingnuts, do not make policy, although they may influence it. The purpose of expressing political opinions in this forum is to participate in policy formation within and among tribal governments. It is the American Indian version of the NY Times editorial page. In light of that purpose, would you like to slow down, quit shouting, and suggest to the people who read this forum what policies they ought to entertain?
swrussel