Steven Newcomb

How the English Language Betrays Us

Those of us who trace our lives to the original existence of the free nations of North America (Great Turtle Island), and who use the English language on a daily basis, face a challenging task. We have to decide which English words and metaphors will be the most accurate way to think, talk, and write about ourselves, and our collective existence. Are we Nations, Tribes, States, or something else? And what frame of reference shall we use to answer such a question?

True, we can use our own names: Kumeyaay, Chumash, Cahuila, Shawnee, Lenape, Hopi, Navajo, Lakota, Cree, etc. That is a simple matter. The challenge is deciding how to best communicate to others, particularly the dominating society, about our political identity as distinct peoples, especially as against the political identity of “the state.”

It is no secret that I prefer to apply the terms “nation” and “nations” to our peoples because those are the English words with the most political clout, other than the word “state.” Political officials of the United States demonstrate this point by preferring to apply the word “nation” to the United States. They call the United States a “nation,” not a “tribe,” or “tribal nation.”

Even though “nation” and “nationhood” have been contested terms, the typical ideal mental image of a “nation” is modeled after certain European countries such as England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, and so forth. In that context, a nation is synonymous with “a country.” Each nation, each country, has its own very definite and discrete boundaries. The political character and identity of each nation is recognized by the other nations of Europe. None of them are considered “tribes,” and all of them would consider the label “tribe” to be a grave insult to their political character which they carefully guard.

In his foreword to the book Indian Tribes As Sovereign Governments (2nd Edition, 2004), U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) distinguishes between “nations” and “tribes” when he writes: “Among the nations of the world, the United States is unique in its recognition of the inherent right of Indian tribes to govern themselves and their lands.” His general category is “nations of the world,” within which he places the United States. His category “nations of the world” does not include “Indian tribes.” Stated differently, Senator McCain excludes “Indian tribes” from the category “nations of the world.”

In the theory of the human mind (“cognitive theory”), there is a term called an Idealized-Cognitive-Model (ICM), or which the lay person may term an Ideal-Mental Model. Take, for example, the prototypical or idealized mental model of a Mother. That ideal mother has certain features or characteristics: 1. She gave birth to the child, 2. She is the primary caretaker of the child, 3. She is married to the child’s biological father, etc.

When we see a modifier placed on the word mother, such as a “step-mother,” or “foster-mother,” this immediately indicates that one or more of the principal features, characteristics, or properties of motherhood is missing. For example, the step-mother indicates that there was a divorce or death and that the biological father remarried. The woman the father married is therefore the “step-mother” of the child.

In the same way, the modifier “tribal” attached to the word “nation” (i.e., “tribal nation”), indicates some missing features, characteristics, or properties of nationhood. Even the modifier “Indian” or “Indigenous” on the word nation could indicate the same thing.

We see an example in the late Senator Daniel Inouye’s foreword to the previously mentioned Indian Tribes As Sovereign Governments where we find the following: “The sovereign status of Indian nations predates the formation of the United States.” Senator Inouye also wrote: “This sovereign status of Indian nations is the fundamental premise upon which a course of dealings between the United States and Indian tribal governments ensued and the foundation upon which hundreds of Federal statutes and thousands of Federal court rulings have been based.”

The phrase “dealings between the United States and tribal governments” indicates that those “governments” being called “tribal” are missing some principal features, characteristics, properties that ordinary or regular “governments” are deemed to have or possess. This leads to the connotation that “tribal governments” are not real governments, they are “lesser than” ordinary governments; they are merely tribal governments.

On the basis of that sort of connotation, it has been fairly common to see people refer to “Indian tribes” as “quasi-sovereign.” The term “quasi” is a Latin word, meaning “as if, as it were” and “approximately.” It is defined in English as “in some sense : or degree : SEEMINGLY.” As an adjective, “quasi” is defined as “having some resemblance usually by appearance of certain attributes.” Every metaphor has an “as if” quality on the basis of some comparison.

Thus, the word as in the title Indian Tribes As Sovereign Governments indicates a kind of metaphor, or metaphorical comparison between “tribes” and the “governments” of full-fledged, idealized nations. Given that every metaphor has a tacit “as if” sense, a more accurate title along these lines would have been, “Tribes As If They Were Sovereign Governments.” This phrasing would make the metaphorical comparison much more explicit. Without realizing it, those who add the terms “tribe” and “tribal” to our nations and peoples are tacitly accepting a quasi nationhood status, as if to say that our nations are not “real” nations, they are really “tribes” that only somewhat resemble the idealized form of nationhood. Decolonizing our lives involves rejecting such self-colonizing and self-diminishing patterns of thought.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s. He is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).

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