A protest against the Washington NFL team's racist mascot. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: America's use of language is tied to racism

An Assault on our Intelligence in an Era of Hanging Chads
By Professor E. Cook-Lynn
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Nobody remembers the “hanging chads” of that Florida election and neither do they remember how to spell anything. (On the Internet, you are supposed to imagine what LOL means! And if you don’t, you are just abandoned to your own ignorance.) It’s a language problem, people….

It’s not just hanging chads. It is how America uses language in a general way, and as far as Indians are concerned, this usage is generally defamatory and it is often tied to our nation’s history of racism.

In a recent letter to the editor of this newspaper, a reader put the whole dilemma of the use of language into a focus that most of us Indians in this town can get. The letter writer who claims to have taught the English language for 20 years, says this: I don’t understand why we, when driving to W. Rapid City have to look at an eye sore street sign that says “Soo San.” His suggestion is that such name calling (and spelling) is even more of a derogatory term than to use the word Sioux…..a historical moniker given to us by our enemies. We do not seem to honor anything but short cuts these days…..

Maybe the business about how to use language is just a pet peeve? Yes, admittedly, but….while we are on the subject, take this as an example of how to use language without knowing what it means or what it is supposed to mean. At lunch the other day, a friend referred to the street calamities in Charlottesville as an example of “tribalism.” All those people behaving badly were just a symptom of tribalism, he said. I was annoyed. What does he think “tribalism” is?

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Courtesy photo

It goes without saying that when Europeans came to this country, they called the indigenous people they met by various descriptions (you know, good Indians, bad Indians) but everyone described the natives of this continent as “tribal people” and “tribal” individuals and communities. Never Nations. Never nation states. The indigenes were called “tribes” and were said to be living out there in the “wilderness.” They weren’t nations or nation states, nor were they organized “civilizations. They were Tribes, seemingly wandering, homeless. That term was even used in Treaty Language even though indigenous nations signed many treaties with the invaders, and we all know that Treaties are signed between NATIONS. Not wanderers.

Does anyone get Irony any more….or did they ever?

One of the questions that the “letter to the editor” writer does not bring up is this: What is the effect of using language in a non-specific way, carelessly, or aggressively, or as reminders of a past behind the telling of true or untrue experiences? He does not bring up the fact that Scholars and Politicians have continued that usage, and we English speakers are saddled with that usage even today.

You hear it all the time in native enclaves across the country, too. Tribalism is a way of life and it means nationhood, and there were literally hundreds of separate NATIONS on this continent prior to white settlement. It is a word that holds great moral, organizational, social and political meaning and should not be used as an epithet.

The truth is, maps of North America reveal that hundreds of people of many indigenous NATIONS lived successfully on this continent since the beginning and claimed to be…separate nations and nation states with their own individual geographic boundaries embodying mythologies of origin, specific and variable worldviews, languages, customs. They raised their individual armies for protection and organized religious and cultural societies for expression of norms and values and ways of behaving toward their fellow citizens and neighbors. They had agreements between nations which always signified a civilized world.

The indigenous civilizations were remarkably sustainable and the truth is, if aggressive colonizers from Europe had not invaded and set in motion a holocaust, our Indian world might be a different place. Tribalism in the way it is translated these days has never expressed the reality of Indian Life.

We of the Oyate are proud to be people who know how to live in a tribal way. Yet, the word is sometimes used offensively, and suggests an inferiority that is not only deeply hurtful, it has assisted in the rise of an epidemic of violence toward people who are different. It has become a damaging epithet, abusive and contemptuous, used to describe all sorts of out of control people who riot in the cities, people who are ungovernable, wanderers, uncivilized, even angry white people who cause trouble for law enforcement officials. The deplorables?

This nation’s use of language toward Indians has been inextricably tied to its history of racism on which it was founded by white, male, Christian colonizers. Even Little House on the Prairie, a much loved story of country life, refers to Indians as uncouth and dangerous, and homeless.

Since the early sixties, native activists like Charlene Teters, Suzan Shown Harjo, Tim Giago and Amanda Blackhorse took up the use of derogatory language toward Indians and joined the widespread challenge to the sports pageantry’s use of mascots and names and caricatures which reinforces negative views.

Where does such protest get us? Some minimal change, maybe. But, in spite of it all, the Washington Redskins still are making a mockery out of Indian lives and ways, and the tomahawk chop is still great fun, isn’t it?


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Read the rest of the story on Native Sun News Today: An Assault on our Intelligence in an Era of Hanging Chads

Contact Elizabeth Cook-Lynn at ecooklynn@gmail.com

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