On the Use of Colonizing Language
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.