April 28, 2008

Imperialism based on language

May I Suggest ... 'Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,' by Steven Newcomb"Pagans in the Promised Land" (186 pages, Fulcrum Publishing) is a powerful book. Read it and you'll understand how this dominating mentality influences U.S. domestic and foreign policy today.

The colonizers were very aware of the power of words as a tool of subjugation. Newcomb quotes 15th century Spanish grammarian and rhetorician Antonio de Nebrija, addressing Queen Isabella: "Your Majesty, language is the perfect instrument of empire."
Some examples of how language shapes thought:Early Supreme Court decisions related to land ownership refer to Indian nations as "tribes," a lesser political unit than "nation"; to Indians as "heathens" and the colonizers as "Christian people"; to America as a "discovered" land and to its original inhabitants as having "diminished" rights because of that discovery.

Newcomb reveals that not much has changed in America's religious/ethnocentric view of indigenous peoples. In one example, he cites a 1987 report by the U.S. State Department titled "History of the Doctrine of Tribal Sovereignty," submitted to the United Nations Social and Economic Council.

In the report, "Indian" is repeatedly spelled "indian," with a lowercase "i," although "Federal Government" is capitalized. The implication is clear, Newcomb writes: The United States "exists up, or on a higher plane in relation to Indian nations, and that Indian nations are down in relation to the United States."

In the same way, Newcomb views the word "tribe" as a "very problematic term," a demeaning term used by governments as a technique of political subjugation. A "tribe" ranks below a "nation," significant considering the U.S. government continues to exercise plenary, or absolute, authority over indigenous people and their own governments, he said.
Comment:  This is what the stereotype issue is all about, and why it's so important. Every time we refer to Indians as "Redskins" or "Warriors," or depict them as chiefs or braves, we're marginalizing them as primitive people of the past. If they're safely ensconced in the mists of time, we don't have to deal with them as modern-day people with modern-day problems.

How many times have we heard people say that they didn't know Indians were still around? Or that they thought Indians all lived in tipis? This continuing ignorance of the diversity and complexity of Indian life is a fundamental issue in Indian country today.

If we Americans see and hear no evil, we don't have to act upon it. We don't have to acknowledge the treaties we've broken, the land we've stolen, the children we've kidnapped. We don't have to address the poverty, crime, and hopelessness we've allowed by not funding necessary government services.

This is why I keep harping on the stereotype issue. I bet Steve Newcomb would agree it's worth harping on.

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