Steven Newcomb

Language and Political Subordination

ICTMN Staff
10/26/10

Linguists say that the reality we experience is largely a result of the words we use on an everyday basis. A shift in one word, or one phrase, can shift reality drastically.

Compare, for example, Indian nations and Indian tribes. Many people in the Indian country who insist on using the word tribe do not seem to grasp the semantic--and practical--implications.

This is precisely why it is critical that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not use any language that makes American Indians subordinate to the rest of the American population--politically, economically, culturally or spiritually.

When we, as Indian people, grapple with the meaning of U.S. federal Indian law and policy, we grapple with the nature of the “word-reality” that the officials of the United States constructed over many generations. Highly intelligent people such as John Marshall were able to use the reality-making power of words to construct a sub-order existence for our Indian nations.

Meanings such as “domestic dependent” were used to construct a reality of subordination (“sub-order-existence”) for our nations, and as we began to internalize and apply those sub-order words to ourselves as a form of identity in English (largely through the law schools), we, as Indian people, began to actively participate in the co-construction of a presumed reality of American Indian subordination.

We owe it to our ancestors and to our future generations to use the world-constructing nature of words in a conscious, astute, and liberating manner.

An effort worth our while in this regard is to make certain that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not get pulled down to the “subordinating” level of U.S. federal Indian law and policy by those who wish to maintain a presumed reality of dominance.

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