[lg policy] Language - The Perfect Instrument of Empire
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Wed Jul 28 21:11:43 UTC 2010
American Indian Movement of Colorado
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Language - The Perfect Instrument of Empire
"The white man promised us many things, more than I can recall, but he
only kept one promise. He promised to take our land, and he took it."
Mahpiya Luta (Red Cloud), Oglala Lakota
The World-Producing Power of Words
Steven Newcomb, Columnist
Indian Country Today
In 1996, in Geneva, Switzerland a member of the US Mission to the
United Nations made a comment about what was then referred to as the
“Draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” I had
asked a question along the following lines of the United States
representatives: “Assuming that the Draft Declaration one day becomes
fully adopted by the United Nations, of what actual, practical
significance will this be to Indigenous Nations and Peoples throughout
One of the US representatives responded: “Well,” he said, “to the
extent that words have meaning, and to the extent that meanings
configure reality, the Draft Declaration has importance.” More plainly
stated, what he was saying is this: Words have meaning, and meanings
are the basis of reality. Shift the words (meanings) we live by, and
reality shifts accordingly.
The US representative was telling us something eminently important.
The true significance of the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples was its potential to shift and improve reality for
all the peoples in the world referred to as “indigenous.”
The other significance of the US representative’s statement is that
human meanings are world-producing. The reality we experience is
largely a result of the words we use on an everyday basis. It is not
an exaggeration to say that a shift of one word, or one phrase, shifts
reality. There is a world of difference, for example, between the
reality of Indian “nations” and Indian “tribes,” although the
difference between the two realities may not be immediately evident.
Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
When we as Indian people grapple with the words (meanings) of US
federal Indian law and policy, we are coming to grips with the nature
of the ‘reality’ that the officials of the United States constructed
over many generations as a method of containment, limitation, and
sub-ordination for our nations and peoples. As a significant unit of
meaning, even the English pre-fix “sub” is capable of shifting
reality. Sub means “under” or “below,” and “ord” refers to an “order”
as in a “world-order.” A sub-order existence is an existence presumed
to be beneath or below someone else or some other people.
Each and every one of our Indian nations possessed an original
existence, independent of each other and the rest of the world, as
Chief Justice Marshall put the matter in the 1832 US Supreme Court
decision Worcester v. Georgia. Over many generations, people working
in an official capacity for the United States ascribed meanings to our
nations, such as “domestic dependent,” and those meanings presumed
that our Indian nations have a sub-order existence in relation to the
United States. Those US officials were endeavoring to construct a
reality of “subordination” for our Nations, and this constructed a
reality of “domestication” and “subordination” ended up as a major
theme of the world-producing “reality” the US federal Indian law and
Thus, today, when we read US House of Representatives resolution 1551,
dated July 22, 2010, ostensibly calling for an endorsement of the UN
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “consistent with US
law,” we must ask ourselves, “Does ‘consistent with US law’ means
consistent with the presumption in US law and policy that American
Indian nations are subordinate to the United States, based on
doctrines of conquest and discovery as expressed by the US Supreme
If so, then where is the reform of US federal Indian law and policy
that Indian elders, leaders, scholars and activists were seeking when
they entered the international arena in the late 1970s? If the US
House of Representatives can use the UN Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous to merely reaffirm and reinforce the problematic
world-producing reality of US federal Indian law and policy, then what
is the point of having the UN Declaration?
H.R. 1551 reaffirms the message of the United States government with
regard to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is
clear: US federal law and policy is just fine just as it is and,
therefore, it does not need to be reformed in keeping with
international standards of human rights. Stated somewhat differently,
the United States seems to be saying that US federal Indian law and
policy do not need to be reformed because they are already in keeping
with international human rights standards.
Given the world-producing nature of human meanings, we as Indian
people would be well advised to have a heightened awareness of the
English words that we use to speak and write about our own existence
in relation to the United States. For when we speak and write we are
producing our world in relation to the United States.
Additionally, we need to remain highly conscious of the highly subtle
and subordinating manner in which US government officials speak and
write about American Indian nations in relation to the United States.
Ever since Europeans invasively arrived to this continent and
hemisphere and used the concept of a “New World” to refer to the
lands, territories, and resources of our Indigenous ancestors we have
been locked in an existential struggle over the very nature of
reality. When it comes to human meanings, nothing is set in stone. We
have the power of our own minds and the world-producing power of words
and their meanings at our disposal.
We owe it to our ancestors and to our future generations to engage in
that world-producing struggle in the most powerful, astute, and
liberating manner possible. An effort worth our while is to make
certain that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
does not get pulled down to the “subordinating” level of US federal
Indian law and policy.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee and Lenape) is co-founder of the Indigenous
Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the
Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for
Indian Country Today.
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