Indigenous languages and race: Tribes rethink dated terms

Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University, convenes a meeting of Ojibwe language speakers, elders and academics. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

Mary Annette Pember

As their languages evolve, some Native communities are reexamining old, colonial-influenced words that no longer fit in today's world

Mary Annette Pember

Indian Country Today

“Black meat,” “long knives,” “eats the fat”: These are a few of the literal translations of Indigenous language terms used to describe Black and White people.

Native communities are reexamining old terminology related to race as the country confronts the impact of systemic racism.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006-2010 American Community Survey Briefs, about 170 Native languages are still spoken today. Many tribal communities are actively engaged in revitalizing their languages as a means to support and restore cultural identity.

Some are addressing language that today is considered derogatory.

Daryl Baldwin, director and co-founder of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, speculates that Indigenous terms focusing on description of skin color likely did not originate with tribes, but instead were influenced by English words.

“Traditionally we don’t use skin color to describe groups of people,” he said.

Daryl Baldwin, director and co-founder of the Myaamia Center, a Miami Tribe of Oklahoma language and research initiative, at Miami University, teaches a Myaamia language class.
Daryl Baldwin, director and co-founder of the Myaamia Center, a Miami Tribe of Oklahoma language and research initiative at Miami University, teaches a Myaamia language class. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

In the Myaamia language, terms describing other groups of people usually reference their geographic location or describe their habits and actions, according to Baldwin.

“There is no word in Myaamia for Indian or Native American as a racial group. For instance, the literal translation for Myaamia is ‘downstream people,’ likely describing our homelands,” he said.

Many tribes describe themselves as “the people,” or human beings. Diné, for instance, means five-fingered people. Haudenoshaunee means people of the Longhouse, and Tlingit means people of the tides. 

Some tribes were later renamed by Europeans. Spanish conquistadors named the Diné Navajo; other tribal names were later anglicized by Europeans. Ojibwe were renamed Chippewa; the French replaced Haudenosaunee with the term Iroquois.

Pejorative terms for Black or White people are likely a reflection of American notions of race.

Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University agrees. For instance, the Ojibwe phrase used to describe Black people, makade wiyaas, is commonly understood today to mean “black meat.” The literal translation, however, is “black flesh,” according to Treuer.

Many Ojibwe terms used to name groups of people were descriptive and referenced something that Ojibwe found unique about the group. French people were called wemitigooshii, or stick wavers. This is likely a reference to Jesuit priests’ practice of waving crosses; the priests were the first French people encountered by Ojibwe, according to Treuer.

Although the word gichi-mookomaan, or “big knives,” is commonly understood today to mean white man, it was first used to describe American soldiers who carried guns with bayonets attached. White men from Canada, on the other hand were called zhaganaash, “one who comes with the wind.” This is a reference to the Battle of Montreal during the French and Indian wars, according to Treuer.

Today, the term gichi-mookomaan carries connotations of a war-mongering people willing to use aggression to meet their needs.

“The fact that these terms weren’t necessarily derogatory when first coined doesn’t change the fact that they’ve later been used in ways that are hurtful and derogatory,” he said.

“Somewhere along the line makade wiyaas morphed into ‘black meat.’ I suspect at the time (it was created) that phrase wasn’t a reference to black chattel slaves who were someone’s property,” he said.

“Today, however, the phrase carries that meaning. There is no way to put a positive spin on it,” Treuer said.

But living languages are organic and will always be changing, according to Treuer.

Language, languages
(Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

“Sometimes we’ve had to create new words, even from way back,” said Kathy Kitcheyan, instructor of Apache language, history and culture at San Carlos Apache College.

“For instance, we had to figure out what to call schoolteachers; slowly our language changed over time,” she said.

It is this organic element of language that likely led to creation of the Navajo language, or Diné Bizaad, term vhinii, which literally translates to “blackie,” according to Keanu Gorman. Gorman, 19, spoke to Indian Country Today from his home in Many Rocks on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

“I think the term vhinii may have been created during World War II by the code talkers,” he said.

Gorman is in his junior year at Harvard University, where he is majoring in history. He spends his free time translating words from Navajo to English that might otherwise not be translated as a means to engage more people in learning the language.

“World War II was a key moment in Navajo history; we were being exposed for the first time to events, people and countries outside of the Navajo Nation,” Gorman said.

The term vhinii, or zhinii, was likely created in the racist American milieu that defined that era, according to Gorman.

Navajo also use the term Naakai Lishin, or “colored person,” to describe Black people.

Gorman has been encouraging Navajo to instead use a term coined by Radmilla Cody, Naahilii, meaning “those who persevered.” According to her website, the term Naahilii is a new, more positive and respectful term passed down to her from a Diné medicine person. Cody is of both Navajo and Black ancestry; she is an award-winning musician and 46th Miss Navajo Nation.

Gorman recently translated the phrase Black Lives Matter into Navajo, Naahilii beda’iina’nihil danili. Charlie Amaya of the Navajo Nation created a letter of Black Lives Matter solidarity for Navajo citizens to sign on Google Docs.

“Now that the Black Lives Matter movement is becoming more visible, Diné are beginning to question the terms we use for Black people and beginning to examine the core of what these terms mean; I think it’s a conversation many Navajo people are having at this moment,” Gorman said.

According to Treuer, Native people are very engaged with racial equity work. “We are in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We often talk about issues of race and language in both Ojibwe and English; some words need to be rejected because they are racist and hurtful; I try to be intentional by using the term makade wizid, Black person,” he said.

Baldwin, of the Myaamia Center, said the power and emerging theme of Indigenous language revitalization is the ability to “challenge the colonial notion of race” and empower tribal nations to define themselves.

“We have to be inclusive because languages survive only when they’re used and shared, grow and change,” he said. “Overall, language revitalization has been a huge healing process for my community.” 

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Mary Annette Pember, citizen of  the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe is national correspondent for Indian Country Today
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