One of the most significant declarations ever to emanate from the United Nations, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is belittled—mocked, almost—by the acronym so often used to refer to it. UNDRIP: it sounds like a health problem. Or something to fix a plumbing system.
The value of speaking clearly, the importance of language in human relations, the history of misuse and misunderstanding of language, the deceptions made possible by tricky language: these are all reasons for us to name the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in full, or, at a minimum, to refer to it as the Declaration. Forget UNDRIP.
N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa-Cherokee), in The Names: A Memoir, wrote about the meaning of who we are that is contained and not contained in our names. Names are mysterious, sometimes revealing sometimes concealing our identity or the identity of a people or place.
History, law, literature, and politics: all involve activities of naming. Religion, too: The Judeo-Christian creation story gave Adam power to name animals and other aspects of the world. This story establishes a domination relation that reverberated when Christian colonizers encountered the inhabitants of the “new world.” Cristobal Colon thought he was going to India and insisted he had found it. So he named the people “Indians.”
John Trudell (Santee Sioux), referring to the difference between “American Indian” and “Native American,” said, “They change our name and treat us the same.” The treatment includes an insistence that the colonial outsiders can name the land and the original peoples of the land; the Indigenous Peoples’ own names are submerged. In this context, the difference between “American Indian” and “Native American” is nonexistent. The point is to acknowledge the difference between how a distinct People name themselves and how others name them.
The struggle to protect Indigenous Peoples benefits from naming their rights. Naming the Indigenous Peoples themselves enhances their presence on the world stage. Too often, even in contexts like environmental stewardship, where Indigenous Peoples are primary actors and sources of knowledge, there is a failure to name the Indigenous Peoples and to credit Indigenous knowledge by name.
Failure to name Indigenous Peoples perpetuates colonial domination and Indigenous invisibility. We have a responsibility in our actions—and words are actions—to insist on self-determination, which includes self-naming. On every occasion when we speak or write about Indigenous Peoples, we have an opportunity to revisit and relieve the burdens of historical and contemporary domination, by undoing the invisibility.
In 1897, Frank Terry, Superintendent of the U.S. Boarding School for Crow Indians in Montana, wrote about the government policy of “naming the Indians”: “The Indian Department has continually urged this matter upon its agents, superintendents, and other workers ‘in the field.’ The command to give names to the Indians and to establish the same as far as possible by continuous use has been a part of the ‘Rules and Regulations’ for years past. … In this thing, as in nearly all others, the Indians do not know what is best for them. They can’t see that our system has any advantages over their own, and they have fought stubbornly against the innovation” [“American Monthly Review of Reviews”].
In 2002, an essay appeared in Comparative Studies in Society and History titled, “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname.” The authors pointed out that government naming practices—including “the renaming of Native Americans”—are a “cultural project: to fashion and normalize a standard patriarchal family-system deemed suitable to [U.S. and Canadian] citizenship, property rights, and civilized, moral conduct.”
Here again we see that one of the major forces aimed at dominating and colonizing Indigenous Peoples is naming: forcing people to change their names to suit the interests of their dominators. The conclusion seems inescapable: Indigenous self-determination means and includes the power of self-naming.
Which brings us back to UNDRIP: it buries Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Rights in an abstraction. It avoids real naming. It perpetuates invisibility. It serves only the interests of bureaucratic-speak. It is embarrassing (who wants to be associated with a drip?).
As if this weren’t enough, UNDRIP has another problem: it is the name for a social media app designed to ‘filter the noise’ from social media content. What does this tell us? Are Indigenous Peoples the ‘noise’ or the content? Who decides?
It’s time to ask again that old question: What’s in a name? The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: It took a long time and a lot of work to get there. Some states even fought against the ‘s’ to make Peoples plural. Say it again. Don’t hide it.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhii?na be Aga’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.