On the Ability of Words to Empower and Disempower

By virtue of our existence in this hemisphere for thousands of years prior
to its invasion by Christian Europeans, we as indigenous nations and
peoples have a vested and inherent right of self-determination. Thus, we
ought to strive to exercise our inherent right of self-determination in a
manner that will empower and strengthen ourselves, particularly when it
comes to the way we use language. Notice that I have mentioned a right "of"
self-determination rather than a right "to" self-determination.

There is a subtle but profound difference between the words "of" and "to."
The word "of" in this context means, "used to indicate identity." The word
"to" on the other hand indicates a destination, or movement toward a
destination. Thus, the word "of" is more appropriate because it
acknowledges that the power or faculty of self-determination is an inherent
aspect of our identity as indigenous nations and peoples. It cannot be
taken away. To say that we have a right "to" self-determination suggests
that we don't presently have the right of self-determination but that we
are moving toward the achievement and possession of that right.

The subtle distinction between the words "of" and "to" suggests that we
need to exercise extreme caution when using the English language because
one word, no matter how small, can create a meaning that is potentially
damaging to our respective nations and peoples and to the expression of our
political identity.

Two other words that deserve deeper scrutiny are "nation" and "tribe."
Politically speaking, the word "nation" is more powerful than the word
"tribe," mainly because pursuant to international law the term nation has
such a definite meaning and particular attributes. A nation is by
definition a political term. According to one definition, a nation is "a
body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is
sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or possess a government
particularly its own."

In international law, the words nation and treaty go together in a way that
tribe and treaty do not. This is because the word "tribe" is not a
specifically political term and therefore does not refer to territory or
government. It derives from Roman history, and refers to any one of three
(tri meaning three) divisions of the Roman people representing the Latin,
Sabine, and Etruscan settlements. The word tribe means variously, "any
aggregate or people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor,
community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders." It can
also mean "a local division of an Aboriginal people." Or, "a class or type
of animals, plants, articles or the like." Tribe is also a term of
"stock-breeding" that refers to "a group of animals, esp. cattle, descended
through the female line."

During the negotiations between the American and British commissioners
leading to the conclusion on the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent, Great
Britain initially wanted an American Indian buffer state to separate the
United States and Canada, an idea that the United States opposed. In the
record of the negotiations we find that the British commissioners used the
word "nation" without variation and without exception because it is a
definite political term that fits the framework of a buffer state. The
American commissioners used the term "tribe" without exception precisely
because it is a weak term politically.

Once we understand that both politically and legally the word nation is a
more powerful term than the word tribe, it then makes perfect sense to use
the more powerful word to refer to ourselves and to reject the politically
weaker term. Making these kinds of finer distinctions and word choices, and
then exercising the judgment and discipline necessary to make these choices
of terminology a permanent feature of the way we think, speak, and write is
critically important.

Because English is the colonizer's language, we must remain ever vigilant
to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of accepting certain terms
and phrases that reinforce subjugation. In this regard, terms such as
Indian, indigenous, Native American, and tribe are all in some way or other
problematic. Thus it becomes necessary to know exactly how we are using the
terms that we use, and why we have decided to use them in a particular way.
Although we can't escape English altogether given the present state of the
world, we can strive to be highly conscious of the way in which we use
English to express our identity as nations and peoples and to thereby
orient ourselves in the world, while revitalizing our own indigenous

Certain patterns of thought were pre-designed by the colonizers long ago
and written into documents such as court rulings and statutes. As we are
raised in our generation, we grow up learning to simply accept many of
these pre-designed thought patterns without realizing they were designed
for our subjugation as indigenous peoples. When we unconsciously repeat
these subjugating conceptual patterns in our daily lives we thereby
reinforce the patterns and institutions of domination that have been put in
place by the colonizing society in previous generations. What we ought to
be doing instead is figuring out and perfecting ways to challenge,
confront, and reject the thought patterns of oppression, while teaching our
young people the skills they will need to do this as well.

Here's an example of how we can be easily tricked by the subtlety of the
English language. In "Fact Sheet No. 9 (Rev. 1), The Rights of Indigenous
Peoples," published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights, we find a definition of indigenous peoples: "Indigenous
or aboriginal peoples are so-called because they were living on their lands
before settlers came from elsewhere." The Fact Sheet goes on to say that
indigenous peoples "are the descendents -- according to one definition of
those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when
people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived, the new arrivals
later becoming dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other

What is disturbing about Fact Sheet No. 9 is that it purports to define
"The Rights of Indigenous Peoples" without ever once suggesting that the
"dominance" established over them by "conquest, occupation, settlement or
other means" is in violation of their human rights. It is as if the Office
of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expects us as indigenous
peoples to accept the idea that the dominance established and exerted over
our respective nations and peoples is not in violation of our most basic
and fundamental human rights.

Evidently, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
expects us as indigenous nations and peoples to simply accept the dominance
established by "conquest, occupation, settlement or other means," while at
the same time striving to have our rights respected and upheld beneath that
system of domination. This is, of course, a complete contradiction because
it is impossible for our most basic and fundamental human rights to ever be
respected so long as we are forced to live under a system of domination.
Understanding and revealing such contradictions, while using the power of
language, thought and behavior to construct a reality of liberation for our
respective nations and peoples is a meaningful way of exercising our
inherent right of self-determination.