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Watch your language!

An "Indian" lexicon lies within the English language, coloring attitudes and actions toward Native Peoples. Most English-speakers do not even notice it exists, let alone that it degrades the Native subjects and the spoken and written word.

This sub rosa language uses the past tense almost exclusively, suggesting that Native Peoples do not live in the present or have a future. Commonly, American Indians once were and used to be, but rarely are or will be.

Curiously, with such an emphasis on the past, Native American history is scarcely recognized. In its place are legends, stories, myths or tales, and pre-history, meaning time before the 1492 Invasion. Which brings us to discover, as in, Europeans discovered India - that is, the Western Hemisphere - and (ahem) Indians.

In the language of discovery, they found and claimed our countries in the name of Manifest Destiny and the divine right of kings. Now, non-Natives are landowners, while American Indians are mere inhabitants who occupied this territory.

But, read on through the "Indian" dictionary and, if you need a guide, just ask the nearest scout.

American Indians eat maize, rather than corn, and game, not meat or fish. American Indians have ponies, rather than horses, and bison, instead of buffalo. And American Indian runners and ponies are swift - not fast, not speedy, only swift.

That's not Native American music or singing you hear - it's American Indian chanting and drumming. And Native American writing and art? Nope, only symbols or markings.

American Indians have pow wows, not business meetings. Only American Indians seem to have plights.

Let others wear clothes, fashion and finery. American Indians are decked out in garb. Full Clevelands, Santa Fe style outfits, dashikis and saris all have their distinct identities on folks who are dressed, attired and adorned. Not us. We're garbed, in feathers, war paint, beads, braids, regalia, costumes and, well, you know - "Indian" garb.

It is important for Native Peoples to be familiar with this "Indian" lexicon, not only to try to change outside references and related behavior, but to avoid using the isolating and charged terminology ourselves and to communicate Native American messages in no uncertain terms.

American Indian children, when imprisoned in church and state schools, were force-fed an English that marginalized and belittled both relatives and cultures as savage and uncivilized. The kids were rewarded for using words that demeaned or distanced them from their past. They were punished for speaking their own languages or for expressing favorable thoughts about their homes and families.

After a century of generational indoctrination, many Native American adults today have internalized both the self-denigrating terminology and the attitudes, and often are the harshest critics of Native American languages and traditions.

Ordinarily, language is a tool of art and communication. In an abusive society, language is a control mechanism, too, and words are weapons used to signal status information, such as who are the inferior and superior folks.

Bullies communicate their status by size, stance, volume, numbers. Verbal bullies do so through put-downs, technical jargon, threats and lies.

The bully strips away self-identifiers - starting with group and individual names - and replaces them with terms of diminution or derision. Traditional names and pejoratives are then co-opted for the bully's playthings and places.

Over the past 150 years, for example, the historic white man all but eliminated Dakota, Lakota and Nakota as recognized titles of languages and nations, converting them to names of locations, vehicles, teams and products. These national names were reshaped into one distorted identity, Sioux, a word in the Anishnabe language for snake or enemy.

Name-calling and cultural thievery are most noticeable in sports these days. When objections are raised, the practices are recast as the innocent sounding nicknaming. A reasonable person can understand why another would object to leveling epithets or stealing identities, but it sounds petty to struggle against a little ol' nickname. In this way, the issue and the person raising it are held up to ridicule, mostly in news stories about objections to ridiculing.

While nouns pose the worst problem - redskins and squaws most prominently - the verbs are troubling, as well. Sports writers never write that cowboys or Vikings scalp anyone, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary. No, in sports headlines, scalping is done by chiefs, Indians and braves.

Don't look in literature or educational materials for American Indians who walk, jump or skip. "Indians" roam. Antelope and elk roam, but "Indians" are the only people who do. The United States even officially outlawed "Indian" roaming, for 56 years in the 1800s and 1900s, regulating that "all nomadic Indians ... will not be allowed to roam away from their reservations without any specific object in view."

A term from that era is used today for those who fail to tow the political or military line - that they are "off the reservation" - but the non-Native Americans are said to have strayed, not roamed.

The "Indian" lexicon reveals its most pronounced bias in religious terminology. Native Peoples seldom are characterized as praying or having religions at all. "Indians" have dances and rites and rituals and worship their gods - always little "g" and plural.

For the great record in the sky, Native Peoples have God, Creator, Great Spirit, Great Mystery, All Being. We just know how to say it more than one way.

Native Peoples have sacred places, which non-Native Americans call ruins.

"Indian" spiritual beliefs are called pagan and heathen practices. Complex and intricate Native American cosmologies are called primitive.

Sometimes it is necessary to legislate changes in offensive terminology. During negotiations for the 1989 and 1990 federal repatriation laws, scientists referred to deceased Native American people as specimens, resources, bones and skeletons. None of their terms was what anyone would call scientific, and the last two left out hair and other human remains.

Some scientists did not want to use the term human remains because of the implication for Native American human rights. Several disassociated themselves by name from any human or legal rights recognitions in a 1990 national repatriation report to Congress.

They insisted, but did not prevail on other "scientific" terms that some lazy museologists still use today: the crass commercial term grave goods, for instance, rather than funerary items, which encompasses the whole of the funeral process and not just material that is buried. They also objected mightily to the use of sacred to describe objects Congress meant to return to Native Peoples.

Oftentimes, misleading and demeaning words are widely used in the "Indian" lexicon, even when preferable words already have standing in law. One such term is member, in place of citizen. Member reduces national sovereignty to a seat in a club and leads some non-Native Americans to believe they can purchase Native American political citizenship status with membership dues.

While we're at it, a final word on sovereignties. Many Native Peoples and others use tribe solely or use nation and tribe interchangeably, but they are quite different. Nation arises from the lexicon of sovereignty. Tribe is perceived as less substantial - a step up from gaggle - a bunch of folks roaming around together or hunkering down in the same place.

Now that reality television has totally ruined the term, let's just have done with it and say that the tribe, er, the nation has spoken.