Framing Indigeneity

The politics of naming 

The intersection of Native science with Western science has taken an unexpected turn into a discussion of American Indian identity. Seems that our work examining science discourse in mass media has revealed deeply held values about Native Americans—most of which are generated by non-Indians.

Osage Chief Wah-she-hah, known to whites as Bacon Rind


Take the example of my tribe, the Osage. My ancestors referred to themselves—like most indigenous folks—as “the people.” We are Wah-zha-zhe. When the French (my ancestors are French, too) began trading goods with my Indian relatives, they wrote out Wah-zha-zhe phonetically: wah (in French, like the word for yes, “oui”) became “oua,” and the middle part, zha, was written as “sa,” and the final part “zhe,” was written “ge,” as it would be pronounced in French. Phonetically Wah-zha-zhe was written by the French as “Osage.” Lose the French accent and the pronunciation is remarkably different from the original: it sounds like “Oh, sage.” 

When you name something, you assume a certain degree of power of it. The Osage never reclaimed the original nomenclature, and we are known today as the Osage Tribe. 

Naming is relational. For example, the concept of being indigenous (let’s call it Indigeneity) means being of place; as emerging from place. But the term is also a relational one because it is held in contrast to those who are not indigenous. In other words, there would be no need for a term like Indigeneity unless there were immigrants to the place called home. 

Such thinking reveals the paired polarity of important terminology such as Indigeneity. And it’s at the heart of the political discussion about Kennewick Man. I present a paper on the topic August 7 at the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Denver. My perspective is that the words, grammar and meaning of Indigeneity, indigenous and Native American—defined by those outside Indian communities—enabled the judge to interpret the laws (that were meant to give deference to tribes) in favor of the political majority. 

The judge ruled that the evidence failed to show a linkage between the 9,000 year-old skeleton and modern tribes, and as a result, the popular press seized on the ruling as an indication that Kennewick Man was not indigenous to North America. Reporters speculated that perhaps Indian tribes don’t deserve “first nation” status. 

But another view was posed by legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie (Yaqui). She argues that because Kennewick Man pre-dates European colonization of the New World, his identity rests outside the scope of our legal and technical vocabulary. In other words, if Indigeneity is a relational term (native paired with immigrant; denizen paired with citizen) then there is no counterpart to Kennewick Man: he can only be defined in relation to what is known, and we know little about such ancient remains. 

If the scope of Indigeneity falls within the temporal framework of settler occupation of North America, and if being indigenous to the continent is defined in relation to the colonizers, what we think of as being Indian–identity and ontology–cannot be defined in relationship to place (the Native perspective); it can only be defined in relationship to time and settlement. By limiting cultural affiliation to a calendar in which settlers occupied North America, modern Indian tribes will have no grounding from which to demonstrate a relationship with Kennewick Man. The U.S. Court therefore redefined Native Americans as the denizens who were present when colonists arrived. Kennewick Man cannot be considered Native American because he doesn’t fit within the parameters of the colonizers’ definitions. 

And thus the power to name assumes legal and political authority.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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