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.