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 the world.”

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 policy.

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 Court?

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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