Words Matter – The Impact of Our Words on Native American Civilizations

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Words Matter

As Dual Language educators, our lives revolve around the theme of words and languages.  We teach students the fundamentals of pragmatics, how to respect regionalisms within languages, and how to distinguish among nuances.  We know that words matter and that they must be carefully and intentionally chosen for effective communication.

But how often do we think about how the words that are accepted in our field and in society may affect others?  How often do we think about how the words we use may cause us to commit microaggressions? How often do we think about the microaggressions we commit in our day-to-day instruction? For most of us, this is not very often and even less when the microaggressions are against a group of people whom much of the US population relates only to the past although they are a very present part of our nation’s current fabric… Native Americans.

Microaggression – Definition

Microaggressions are seemingly small statements, events, or incidents  in which a person’s identity is challenged or a person is discriminated against.  In this blog post, I talk about microaggressions against Native Americans that are embedded in our daily Social Studies instruction.  Through this conversation, we will quickly find that there are many terms sprinkled throughout our teaching of United States history, which disregard Native Americans as non-human or treat them as if they were/are barbaric.  These attitudes must change, and only in changing the words we use in instruction can this happen.

Microaggressions Against Native Americans in Instruction

First, the terms we use when describing past conflicts between White colonists/Americans and Native Americans paint White colonists/Americans as innocent or at the very least civilized while depicting Native Americans as uncivilized.  For instance, when we use the term revolution to talk about the United States’ split from England, but uprising and massacre to talk about Native Americans fighting against the same people, we clearly delegitimize the struggles of native Americans while elevating the colonists’ actions.  For instance, the Jamestown Massacre refers to the Powhatans fighting against the British who had occupied Powhatan land.  This fight ultimately led to a small Powhatan victory. Additionally, the Schenectady Massacre of 1690 refers to the Algoquin tribe attacking British settlers in present day New York State, again leading to a small, temporary victory for the Algoquin tribe. Hence, by calling these fights massacres, the history we teach delegitimizes the Native peoples’ victories while using the term Revolution honors the White colonists’ victory against the same entity.

Furthermore, we continue to use this terminology, massacre, to label Native American aggression against Americans after 1776 although American aggression against Native Americans, which was more rampant and bloody, are labeled as wars or not acknowledged at all. For instance, on August 15th, 1812, at Fort Dearborn, American settlers and soldiers died at the hands of Native Americans.  This battle has forever been named the Massacre of Fort Dearborn.  Similarly, when only three Americans died in Miami County, Ohio at the hands of Native Americans, the event was forever known as the Dilbone Massacre.  And during the last 40 years of the 1800s, when the Apaches resisted their lands being stolen and their tribe being forced onto reservations, their resistance was forever known as the Apache Attacks.  

On the other hand, by calling American acts of killing Native Americans wars and American success at taking away their lands victories, we legitimize American aggression. For instance, the nomenclature Seminole Wars lends a sense of legitimacy to the massacre conducted under President Jackson’s orders of Native Americans and African Americans who had escaped captivity. Other similar wars where Americans were victors include the Sioux Wars (1854-1890) and The Klickit War (1855).  Hence, these are two additional examples of the legitimization of taking land and life away from Native Americans. And perhaps even worse is the fact that there is no name for the intentional government murders conducted by US troops who handed Native Americans blankets that were purposefully infested with small pox. There is no name for the cultural genocide and murders that occurred at government, boarding schools where Native children were forcibly sent. Why are these actions not called massacres?  And why are they barely taught in schools? By not giving these actions names, we, in essence, erase their importance and the importance of the Native Americans who were impacted. We also erase the experience of their descendants who continue to carry the intergenerational trauma caused by these actions.

To be fair, there have been a few times when history has accurately recorded American aggressions as massacres.  For example, the Washita Massacre, where 250 sleeping Cheyennes were killed has been accurately named as such.  However, there are far fewer examples of these than of naming such incidents as wars and battles.

In the same vein, other discrepancies in phrasing that can be seen in describing Natives and White Americans are how Native Americans would be on a warpath although White colonists and Confederates built militias and armies or how, White Americans discovered the Americas while Native Americans traveled to England.

Perhaps most insidious and accepted are our terms frontier, westward expansion, and civilization.  Practically no US History class is taught without these terms.  In fact, westward expansion is often used to label an entire unit of study.  And yet, these terms act as if there wasn’t already civilization in the western parts of the present-day United States.  

How do these terms affect our Native American students?  How do they affect our non-Native students’ views of Native Americans who continue to live in the United States today?  

Thoughts of a Lakota Elder

I seek not to speak for Native Americans who have been constantly bombarded by these microaggressions.  Instead, I quote Dan, a Lakota elder whose thoughts are featured in Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn:

My little great grandson came home one day and told me they were studying the frontier in American history.  I asked him what it was.  He told me it was where civilization stopped… Just look at that!  They were teaching him that civilization only existed up to where the white men had reached.  That means everything on the other side of that line was uncivilized.  Well, we were on the other side of that line.  We had governments and laws, too.  Our people were better behaved than the people that came into our lands.  We thought we were at least as civilized as the white man.  But here is my little great grandson coming home from school talking about the frontier and civilization.  It was like we didn’t exist.

Every time you talk about the frontier you are telling us that we don’t matter…. See, this is part of the big story you don’t even see.  You teach about the frontier. You talk about the wilderness and how empty the land was, even though to us the land was always full. You talk about civilization like we didn’t have any, just because we didn’t try to haul big chairs and wooden chests across the desert in a cart.  The way you teach it, America started from some ships that came to Massachusetts and Virginia…It was like the place was empty and you filled it up… Just think what that does to our kids (2002).”  

And so let’s think about what our words do to our kids. If you have Native American students, the above quote makes it clear the impact we are having through these microaggressions. Even if you don’t have Native American students in your classes, remember that the culture we create continues to affect all those who live in our world.  Our non-Native students may someday work with Native American colleagues. They may have impact over policies that affect Native Americans. They may someday teach Native American children. Words matter…. What words will we choose to use? Please comment below on how you feel about this post. Do you agree or disagree with me? What will you do to ensure that your words honor Native Americans?

4 comments

  1. […] 5. Westward Expansion – This term is used to title a Social Studies unit in US History that refers to the White population moving west.  This term essentially disregards the fact that there were already ancient civilizations west of where European Americans had settled, and hence, erases Native American history, and suggests that it required Europeans to “expand” civilization.  Rather than using such a derogatory term against Native Americans, why not title the unit to say what we mean, “European American migration west?”  (Read here for more terms that are insulting towards Native Americans.) […]

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