Changes in Language Over Time: Self-Determination

Treaty between the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot, and Potawatomies.  Phote: Wikimedia Commons

Treaty between the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot, and Potawatomie Indians, 1807.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Language is always changing because as society changes, so must the language we use to describe it. Consider how our present day lexicon compares to a generation ago: back then, we wouldn’t have understood  terms like “text me,” “log on,” “let’s skype,” etc. Conversely, words that were common in 1968 have fallen out of popular use. Today it’s uncommon to say “groovy,” “far out,” or even “swell” or “terrific” as a positive description for something. Language changes with technology, across regions, and from within and between cultures or social groups, which means it’s subject to the social circumstances of any given group.

In Indian country there are words we commonly use today that reflect the changes we have undergone as a subgroup in the US that is subject to constantly changing political policy. Take the term “sovereignty,” for example. In 1935, it was a concept few regular, everyday Indians would’ve understood. By the 1980’s, in the wake of the civil rights movement (and, more specifically, the American Indian Movement) Indians talked about defending not just their treaties, but their “sovereignty.”  Indians attaining high degrees of education led to deeper understandings of their legal conditions, and thus how to improve them. It required a new vocabulary.

With changes in federal policy in the mid-1970’s, the term “self-determination” entered our lexicon, and now we often use “self-determination” interchangeably with “sovereignty.” Both describe very complex political concepts that most non-Native Americans don’t fully grasp. Most American Indians as members of separate and distinct nations, on the other hand, have a better handle on the concept.  But the term “self-determination” means different things to different people, and even at the highest levels of government there is disagreement. This is certainly true within Indian country, and we are still trying to sort out what self-determination means on an international scale where Indians are concerned.

In the wake of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples American Indian intellectuals are engaging in vigorous debates–in sometimes highly acrimonious ways– on what self-determination means. In this article I jump into the debate.

About Dina

Dina is Policy Director and Senior Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, and teaches American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington, she holds a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies and a master's degree in American Studies with a research focus on indigenous studies, both from the University of New Mexico. She is a veteran Indian artist, and dancer in the Native American powwow tradition. Along with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, she is co-author of "'All the Real Indians Died Off' and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans" (Beacon Press). As a freelance writer, she writes for KCET Link TV, was a long-time contributor to Indian Country Media Network, Native People's Magazine and numerous other outlets.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s