All people use certain phrases without thinking. Our parents used them, and their parents used them... We hear them on television and in movies. We read them in books, too, but many of them reflect ignorance, bias, or stereotypical ideas.
As time permits, I'll add the depth that I provide for "Off the reservation." Beneath "Off the reservation" are others, arranged alphabetically.
One example is "off the reservation" which is used to generally used to signify being out of control. Hit pause for a few minute and let's look at that phrase. Bear with me--context is important.
At least as far back as 6000 years (see footnote in article here), three tribes--the Wascoes, the Warm Springs, and the Paiutes--were in what we now know as Oregon. They fished the Columbia and hunted all through that area for their own subsistence, for also for trading purposes.
In the early 1800s, more and more white settlers began moving onto their homelands. In 1855, the US government wanted that land for those settlers. A treaty was negotiated that established the Warm Springs Reservation. The tribes gave up ten million acres of land and reserved the rights to fish, hunt, and gather foods "in their usual and accustomed places" which included places not within the boundaries of the reservation (this summary is based on information provided at the Warm Springs website).
Some years later, commercial fishermen fenced off land along the river and had railroad tracks laid there. Refrigerated train cars were parked next to the river and fish was caught and moved into the train cars. The commercial fishermen argued that the tribes had given up that land in a supplemental treaty in 1865. Sentries were posted to keep Native people from the river. This was, of course, a threat to their livelihood and a treaty violation as well.
Secretary of the Interior's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, J.D.C. Atkins, submitted a history of what transpired to the U.S. House of Representatives 50th Congress (1887-1889). About that 1865 treaty, Atkins reports:*
"... nothing whatever was said to them regarding the giving up of their fishery rights, and that they were simply told the treaty was intended to regulate their manner of leaving the limits of the reservation with passes from the agent to prevent them from being taken for hostiles, the Snake Indians being at the time at war."That excerpt is interesting, isn't it? For those who don't know, the US government assigned "Indian agents" to tribes. In theory they were responsible for implementing federal policy, but so many were corrupt opportunists that they became regarded in negative ways. There was a lot of fraud and misrepresentation of fact going on but let's stick with the topic at hand.
The excerpt says two things. First, it says that 'you Indians better stay on your reservation because if you don't, someone might think you're a Snake Indian and kill you.' Second, it also says--in effect--that 'for your own good, you can't leave without the agent's permission.' In other words, if you left the reservation without permission of the Indian agent and got shot by a white person, it is your own damn fault.
This practice wasn't specific to Warm Springs. It was widespread. It was in practice on the Apache reservation in the late 1870s when Geronimo was there. Jackie Thompson Rand (she's Kiowa) writes about Kiowa men in the 1870s needing permission from the agent to hunt off their reservation (see page 91 of her book, Kiowa Humanity and the Invasion of the State, published in 2008 by the University of Nebraska Press). These are only three examples. There are others.
Does this history help you understand why I, or any Native person, would hear "off the reservation" and have a different response to it than someone who doesn't know this history?
It is one phrase, but as I noted above, there are many. AICL's The Foul Among the Good page has visual illustrations that many people find innocuous--but that I object to. This "All you do is complain" page is a companion, of sorts, to The Foul Among The Good. If you're here, it is because I linked this page from a brief post to AICL. Rather than go into a lot of history for some of those posts, I hope it will suffice for you to know that innocuous phrases are borne of certain moments in history that, in effect, yank me right out of a story. Sometimes I'll continue to read. Sometimes I just set the book aside. No matter how good that story or book might be, its magic can be ruined by a single phrase.
*In that congressional hearing, the Secretary of the Interior wanted $3000 to buy some of the land along the Columbia River in Oregon. That land would be held in trust by the U.S. government for the people on the Warm Springs reservation to use for fishing. I do not know if funds were allocated to purchase that parcel of land but can say that the tribes have prevailed in what they agreed to in the 1855 treaty. There have been many cases wherein tribes have successfully fought to defend their reserved rights. This timeline has pertinent dates.
If you're a writer, please rethink your use of "off the reservation" or any of the phrases I'm listing here. You're perpetuating misinformation. If, however, you push back on the use of the phrase in the book, that would be ok, and I'd love to see how you do it.
If you're an editor, have a conversation with your writer about other options. The writer can avoid the phrase, or find a way to critique it within the book.
If you're a reviewer and your journal policy allows you to do so, call it out in your review. If you review at a blog, do call it out!
Update, May 4, 2016: Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Suzan Shown Harjo, wrote an excellent article about "off the reservation" in response to Hilary Clinton's use of it in an April 29 CNN interview, and the ways the phrase was being discussed by Native and non-Native commenters, too. Some said we were "put on reservations." Some said reservations were "concentration" or "internment" camps. Harjo wrote, in part:
While the advocacy and earnestness of Sanders spokesperson Turner are greatly appreciated, she (like others, including some Native commenters) misstates the history by claiming that the ‘government put them on reservations.”
Reservations are Native lands reserved by Native Nations in treaties and agreements, first with each other and later with England, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Russia and other countries, and with the United States, beginning in its earliest days.
Our ancestors were not put on reservations. They reserved lands, including hunting, fishing, gathering and cultural rights in ceded territories, that they trusted the US would help protect them from the rapidly increasing and aggressive foreign populations and their diseases.
Then came the Indian Removal Act, a states’ “rights” law signed by General Andrew Jackson, almost as soon as he became US President. Jackson had helped draft the Act, after he, his former aide de camp and other Indian fighters took over the Senate and House Committees on Indian Affairs. The law required a removal treaty before Native Peoples were wrenched from their homelands.
That began a process of the US backing Georgia, New York and other powerful states to ethnically cleanse certain Native reserved territories by coercing treaties for a mass movement of many Native Peoples to new reserved lands in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma and Kansas).
Whether the Native lands were negotiated in honorable nation-to-nation dealings or at bayonet point, they are our countries today. Insistence that we were forced onto reservations and need to be liberated has led to horrific policies and land loss in the distant and near past. This is one reason we take words and language so seriously, and suit up for teachable moments.
Below are additional phrases that are in use, but problematic. As of this date (May 5, 2016), we (at AICL) have not done in-depth write-ups similar to the one for "off the reservation." They are arranged alphabetically for your convenience, and several are in process.
This is a phrase widely used to say that someone is taking a defensive position. If you pause to think about it, I think you'll understand why it is a problem. The phrase is rooted in stories about "brave pioneers" who were "under attack" by "hostile savages." Hit the pause button.
Those "brave pioneers" were seeking land that belonged to Native peoples who fought to defend that land, their homes, their moms and their kids. Anyone would do that, but the imagery of "circle the wagons" makes Native peoples out as barbaric and aggressive. Who, in fact, was the aggressor?!
More facts: The wagons were circled at night in order to keep the cattle enclosed so they wouldn't wander off. I've also read that, if there was an attack, the wagons were too far apart and slow moving to have actually been put into that circle.
That phrase is used to signify where Indians go when they die, but is it? Given that there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US, with distinct languages, histories, locations, and material cultures, you may correctly surmise that there would be differences in how the after life is viewed or named, too.
"low man on the totem pole"
People think there is a hierarchy associated with location of a figure on a totem pole. There isn't. I see that phrase used in children's/YA lit to indicate someone with less status than others. A character, for example, may lament that he is the "low man on the totem pole." In 2015, I came across that phrase in Sarah McCarry's All Our Pretty Songs. I wrote to her about it. We had an excellent conversation. See on totems by Sarah McCarry.
To get a sense of the significance of totem poles, watch the video Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole.
This page will be updated periodically. Last update: 5/4/16.