Language is crucial to garnering support, leaders say

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The perception of Indian country in the eyes of the American public needs a face-lift, according to a group of American Indian leaders in the Pacific Northwest.

“Public polls seem to suggest our support has been eroded in recent years due to the backlash of the [former lobbyist Jack] Abramoff scandal and its negative images surrounding tribal gaming,” said Alan Parker, faculty for Native American Law and Policy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “It seems a large segment of the public believe that what Indian people are about is operating casinos.”

This view of equating tribal position with success at gaming is what motivated the formation of a “think tank.” Three round-table events have been held since August, two in Oregon and one at the National Congress of American Indians meeting held in early October in Sacramento. Parker said, “We are dealing with a new level of challenges that requires a more effective way of communicating.”

Indian leaders decided to utilize University of California, Berkley professor George Lakoff’s studies, which analyze how language influences thinking. Two cognitive linguistics experts, Alyssa Wulff and Anat Shenker, were brought in to help American Indians better communicate tribal issues, such as sovereignty being a sacred right, to non-Indians.

“The neoconservative movement has used cognitive linguistics successfully over the years to advance its political agenda with such words as ‘tax relief’ and ‘family values’ because these terms frame their message in ways that persuade their audience to support them,” said Parker. “We, too, need to know how to frame our message of tribal rights and values to win the support of the American public.”

Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation Tribal Councilman and elder Hank Murphy will host the fourth Message Development gathering in December because he feels these discussions are needed to focus Indian people on who they really are, where they are headed and how best to reflect that understanding in the words they use.

Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., a regular at the table, said, “We need these ‘think tanks’ all around the country. Our people are beginning to be identified as ‘casino Indians’ and not as the people of the land or of the salmon. The casinos help us economically but they are not who we are. We are our languages, we are our culture, we are our natural resources, we are our spirituality and we are our prayers.”