Naming as Power

Osage ribbon work

Auntie told me a story while I was in Oklahoma.

The Osage gather each June for the dances in the Grayhorse, Hominy and Pawhuska districts. My aunt and her daughter open their homes to relatives and friends, serving a bounty of food and offering beds and showers.

We spend the days and early evenings under the arbor, listening to the drum, dancing, and honoring neighbors, relatives and ancestors.

I ask questions to enrich my understanding of this aspect of my heritage. And my family is very patient with me.

So I asked my aunt what she called the ribbon-work pattern on the blanket she made for her grand-daughter.

Aunt Judy said, well, that’s an interesting question.

Judy asked the same question of an elder who taught her and my mother Osage weaving and sewing arts.

The elder shook her head and said, you know, folks always are naming things. They need to know the name. There is no name.

Not everything has a name.

I encountered the issue of naming when I began to study news coverage and framing. To name is to own. To control. That’s what I read.

Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, said that language constructs reality and that naming produces cultural value. Writing about Indian identity, S. Alan Ray said that naming is an exercise of power.

If naming is power, what is “not naming?”

Perhaps that has power, too.


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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