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Shakespeare and Indians

Tlingit-Unangax̂ artist and musician Nicholas Galanin created "Never Forget" based on the famous Hollywood sign

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” These words uttered to Paul Newman in the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967) have become part of American folklore. They attest among other things the challenge in effective communication. As anyone who writes or speaks in public (and even in private settings) knows that while you know exactly what you mean by your words, the reader/listener is quite capable of reading/hearing something totally different. The issue then may become one of trust: Is there sufficient trust between the two of you so that you can resolve the miscommunication or do you both go your separate ways sure that you heard or read right and let the difference become a sore point that festers possibly even into violence?

You talkin’ to me?


The Universal Translator in Star Trek

The universal translator is a beloved device of science fiction such as in Star Trek. It instantaneously enables people of different worlds to perfectly understand each other. In theory, it could work as well between beings of the same world who speak different languages.

Even more miraculously, the device requires only a few words to work its magic. All one needs to do is say the equivalent of “Hello, my name is John Doe” and the device comprehends the entire culture. It knows that Alexander Graham Bell invented “hello” so he would have something to say when using the phone and why Henry Stanley said the now-awkward, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Through this device all cultural nuance vanishes as it precisely translates the words of one language and species into the American English of the 1960s or 1980s-1990s depending on which Star Trek series you are watching.

Sometimes the translation does not work. Times change. In the Whales movie (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), Kirk says at the goodbye moment with the 20th century scientist now in his present and her future: “like they say in your century, I don’t even have your telephone number.” If the movie were made today, would the comment even be about telephone numbers? Remember “when you’ve got mail” did not refer to the Post Office and was something exciting?

In a Star Trek Voyager time-travel episode (Season 3, Episode 8-9: “Future’s End: Parts 1 & 2”), Tom Paris, supposedly conversant on 20th century America, learns that he is not quite as familiar with 1996 vernacular as he thought. He keeps flubbing the references and terminology of the American past. Perhaps most famously, in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, the Enterprise encounters a people who speak in metaphors and not physically literal. The universal translator is useless.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra in Star Trek: The Next Generation

The captains of the two species share an experience which each one explains in their own language: Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh in our narrative format while the alien uses metaphors and symbolic language to express beings who are alone and then who join together as brothers in face of a common foe. The new metaphor Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra then joins Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk. These examples highlight the challenges in effective communication between species and between time periods of the same species.

These science fiction examples are relevant because it is perhaps with Europeans and Indians that we have the most tragic close encounters of the third kind in human history.


“To be or not to be, that is the question?” Shakespeare posed a fundamental question of identity through the character of Hamlet. The question is known far and wide.

One answer frequently is overlooked. “I am that I am, that is the answer.” In the King James Version of the Bible translated approximately the same time as Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the name of deity Yahweh who Moses encounters at the burning bush is translated as “I am that I am.” The validity of this translation of the Hebrew has been questioned by biblical scholars. The Hebrew appears to be in the third person and not the first person. It seems more likely that the not-so-universal translators of the King James Bible were influenced by the cultural values of their own time. One should not be surprised by this. All biblical translations are not alike.

The consequences of this failure in translation are not limited to the ivory tower. In fact, the translation is not so much a failure as an expression of fundamental English values. The English are an “I” people. They brought that perception with them to what became the United States. There they encountered people colloquially called Indians who had a different value system. The tragic result was that even when people thought they were successfully communicating with each other, they were not. Those miscommunications continue to this very day. As best I can tell, there is little hope in the foreseeable future that each peoples will learn to speak the same language or even try to understand each other.


The initial failure to communicate occurred over land. The Europeans brought to this country a value system based on “I.” I own this piece of land. I have a deed attesting that I own this land. The “I” could be an individual human being or an individual corporation. It meant that through a treaty [which later would be broken anyway] you Indians who owned the land sold it to me and/or my corporation. The land was purchased and not taken from you. It now belongs to me.

As is comparatively well-known today, this perception did not match how the Indians understand the transaction. They did not come from an “I” society with deeds. The European concept of land ownership was foreign to them. Typically, today, this is understood to mean something along the lines of “we grant you permission to use the land.” In this scenario, “use” did not mean permanently settle in farms and prevent us from using it anymore the way it did to the Europeans. There was a failure to communicate. So while land treaties may look nice and official, they never meant the same thing to both parties. Of course, one can make the claim that even based on the European meaning of the terminology, the treaties never meant for long to the Europeans what the treaty expressed anyway.


Mascots and logos were the subject of a recent blog (Should Chief Daniel Nimham Be Honored or Erased?, December 14, 2021). As I mentioned in it, one lesson learned by me in studying the current controversies, is the difference between Indians and Americans on the choices made for  logos or mascots. Americans frequently choose an individual. It doesn’t even have to be an historical person, it could be a fictional one. By contrast, the Indian images were more pictorial or metaphorical and not of an individual.

Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) in a virtual talk through the Vermont Historical Society (January 19, 2022) spoke about statues to Massasoit. He was the grand sachem of all the Wampanoag Indians. He met with the Pilgrims. As best I can tell the statues of him she showed are part of the New England culture and not the Wampanoag tradition. Have you ever seen statues by Indians to one of their own? For example, the statue to Chief Nimham mentioned in an earlier blog is being done by the municipality of Fishkill and not the Stockbridge Indians. Again, different cultural values.


O’Brien also spoke about the word “native.” The topic came up as an objection to non-Indian New Englanders saying they were “native New Englanders.” In her opinion that was an improper use of the term.

In this instance she is exactly right and exactly wrong. “Native” in the American sense, refers to where you as an individual were born. No matter where one may travel in the world, you can always identify yourself as a native of your birth place. In American, I am a native New Yorker and a native American.

By contrast, “native” in the Indian sense used by O’Brien refers to a people, a people who have been on the land for 500 generations or 10,000 years. It is not based on individual birth. Based on her definition, the Tuscarora will never be native New Yorkers in American since they migrated to New York; the Cherokee will never be natives of Oklahoma in American since they were forced there; and the Apache will always be Native Canadians since they migrated from there to what became America.

In my opinion, Indians would be better served if they dropped the term “native” for “ancestral.”  Americans rarely even use the term “native” and when they do they are referring to their place of birth. One may ask, what exactly do Indians gain by referring themselves as “Native Americans” to the exclusion of the American meaning? Consider the 14th Amendment to the Constitution:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.

Birth place of the individual in the United States makes us American citizens. So again, one may ask, what is the value added to Indians in claiming that only they are native to America and that Americans born here are not?

One final example highlights the dilemma of the failure to communicate through different meanings of the same term. In her talk, O’Brien suggested that non-Indigenous people (her only use of that term instead of Indian in her entire talk) refer to themselves as “Settlers.” American ancestors can be identified as settlers, immigrants, and colonists, but Americans in the present do not use such terms to refer to themselves as individuals (unless they are an actual immigrant as an individual). Americans as settlers refers to an action taken by an individual and not a genetic trait passed on from one generation to the next forever. Here again, one may ask how does it benefit Indians to refer to Americans in the present as non-native settlers? It sounds more like Woke run amok.

In these casual examples at the conclusion of her talk, O’Brien demonstrates the failure to communicate is in full swing. Her suggested terms simply add fuel to the fire in the culture wars. They are fine as long as she is preaching to the choir. Even though she is a calm and reasonable person, her suggestions are not words of healing, they are words of war.

In a previous blog I suggested the centennial of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act provided an opportunity for Indians and Americans to have a conversation about what it means for an individual Indian to choose to be or not to be an American citizen and on the relationship between Indian Nations and the United States.

The Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee have never accepted the authority of the United States to make Six Nations citizens become citizens of the United States, as claimed in the Citizenship Act of 1924.  We hold three treaties with the United States: the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the 1789 Treaty of Fort Harmor and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. These treaties clearly recognize the Haudenosaunee as separate and sovereign Nations. Accepting United States citizenship would be treason to their own Nations, a violation of the treaties and a violation of international law, as recognized in the 2007 United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (THE CITIZENSHIP ACT OF 1924 by Onondaga Nation, June 7, 2018).

We also should add language and vocabulary to the mix. On the other hand, I am well aware of the fact that no such conversation will occur and the culture wars will continue and even worsen.

“In a marriage, almost never do a husband and wife have the same language. The key is we have to learn to speak the language of the other person,” Dr. Gary Chapman quoted in the NYT 2/13/22.

When Did Indians First Become Indigenous?

We are all victims now! (Elijah Nouvelage, Bloomberg)

When did Indians first become Indigenous? When were they first victimized? Before suggesting some dates, I provide again the following working definition of the term “Indigenous”:

No general, internationally accepted definition of indigenous peoples exists. It is typical of indigenous populations that they do not represent the dominant population in the larger society of which they are part, although they may be the population group that inhabited the area first.

To be Indigenous requires a dominant population that has victimized a weaker people. You can’t have a victimized people with there being someone to victimize them. So when did that process begin?

As a caution, I am including the words of Susanah Shaw Romney in “Settler Colonial Prehistories in Seventeenth-Century Century North America” (William and Mary Quarterly 76 2019). She writes that terms may be applied when they are inappropriate.

Central to the theory is the idea of settler colonialism as a structure that requires Native erasure, both ideologically and in the real world… [I]t is crucial that we not become part of the ongoing process Native erasure ourselves by failing to recognize the central role played by Native nations both in the past and today.

As I understand this, she is informing us not to fall into the trap of discounting the contribution Indians have and are making to American history. One corollary is to recognize the existence of Indian history prior to contact with white people in its own right.

Here, then, are some suggestion dates for when Indians became Indigenous based on the 12,000 year existence of Indians on Turtle Island.

0          At creation – were Indians victimized at the moment of their creation?  If yes, then who was the dominant population? If no, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” for that time.

12,000 BCE to 1491 Pre-Columbus – were Indians victimized during the first 11,491 years of their existence prior to the arrival of Columbus? If yes, then who was the dominant population? If no, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” for that time.

1492 Columbus – Did the arrival of Columbus mean the instant victimization of all Indian peoples in the western hemisphere? If not, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” at that time.

Consider some non-Indian examples. Suppose Jews decided in response to their victimization and struggle to survive against dominant populations, they wish to be called the Holocaust People as in:

Moses led the Holocaust People out of Egypt.
David became king of the Holocaust People in Jerusalem.

Or suppose Armenians wanted to be called the Genocide People after their victimization.

In the beginning of the fourth century CE, the Genocide People established the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Or how about Africans declaring that they are to be called the Enslaved People?

These examples are not exact parallels. Still, they highlight one crucial similarity with each other: peoples who have been victimized do not necessarily want to be defined by victimhood or named after the act of victimhood perpetrated against them.

When the following meetings occurred, were they occasions of victimization or attempts as alliance/friendship?

1607 John Smith and Powhatan (Algonquian)
1609 Henry Hudson and the Lenape
1620 Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

These “first contacts” can be compared and contrasted with that of Columbus and the Carib. To characterize the English or Dutch as dominant at this these times seems farfetched. Eventually these three Indian peoples would become victims of the dominant people. However, it is incorrect to designate them as “Indigenous” right from the start.

In fact, one could tell the history of the United States through the prism of Indians becoming an Indigenous people, that is, one dominated by a population which victimized them. The very Exchange in the journal of the American Historical Association that started this thread (see Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode) presents one such moment that could be considered as a starting point: King Philip’s War (1675-1678) marked a last ditch effort by the Wampanoag to fend off the English settlers who had and did become the dominant people.

Here in New York, 1779, the Sullivan Campaign marks an important turning point in the relation between the American settlers and the Haudenosaunee. Prior to then, multiple Indian tribes and European peoples jockeyed for power in various wars from the 1600s through the French and Indian War to the American Revolution. Until this time Indians were players in the game of power politics and not Indigenous.

A similar case can be made for the Cherokee. They had developed a script, written a constitution, and settled as farmers. Then came the Trail of Tears. At that point, it seems appropriate to refer to them as Indigenous as clearly the dominant culture had victimized them by forcibly removing them from their land.

In 1876, the Battle of Little Bighorn was between two sides quite capable of squaring off against each other. In fact, the Sioux were even capable of winning the battle. Eventually their foe would become the dominant one but it hadn’t yet happened. The Sioux did not yet fit the definition of an Indigenous people.

The same applies to the Apache before their leader Geronimo died in 1909.

These examples show a more than 200 year period over which various Indian peoples from New England to New York to the southeast to the northern Plains to the west became victimized by the dominant population. As Shaw writes:

The dominance of Native peoples on the continent through much of the eighteenth century, and clear understanding of that dominance by the colonists at the time, fits poorly with current theorizations of settler colonialism….

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the real power of Native peoples on the North American continent often constrained whites from enacting settler colonialist fantasies.

Notice how Shaw, whether accidentally or on purpose, has reversed the definition of “Indigenous.” She states that both Indians and Europeans/Americans in the 18th century recognized that the Indians were the dominant people. She has no illusion about what would happen next. But she objects to “perpetuat[ing] ideologies of the Disappearing Indian.” So at the very time when Indians say “We’re still here,” their history risks being shortchanged by limiting them to victimhood status.

There is no historical basis for intrinsically defining Indians as victims from the moment of their creation through the first 11,500 years of their existence. Or to the moment of first contact with a single white person in 1492. Or with various white people over the centuries to follow. So why do white people routinely designate Indians as “Indigenous.” Why define them as being victimized by a dominant population? Instead, it happened to them at specific points in time, with specific people, and specific events. Indians were not created as victims so why should they have a victimized name (does any other people)?

You may be thinking that when people say “Indigenous” they really mean “indigenous” in the traditional sense and not the politically-corrected sense. Then why use the term at all? When I began this thread, I asked what is the value added of using the term “Indigenous” over “Indian.” Indians don’t object to being called “Indians.” Why do white people prefer “Indigenous” to “Indian”?

In a previous blog, I claimed that white people would not support the change of Columbus Day to Indian Heritage Day. However they would support the change to “Indigenous Heritage Day.” I suggested that “Indian” was just a name so there was no moral benefit to calling the holiday that. By contrast, “Indigenous Heritage Day” marked a victory over evil and repentance for America’s second original sin.

At that time I forgot about a phrase used to name that situation. It comes from the Civil Rights movement. It is called the “white savior” syndrome. It can be defined as follows:

The term white savior, sometimes combined with savior complex to write white savior complex, refers to a white person who provides help to black people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) by Rudyard Kipling.    

I wrote about it briefly back in 2018 (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?).

Consider the movie Brooklyn (2015), the story of an Irish immigrant to America in the 1950s who lives the American Dream. She was not a superhero. She did not change the course of human history. She did not stand out as she was one of many who eventually found their heaven on earth after an intermarriage to an Italian and a dedication to education. Solomon Northup was doing that over a century earlier but that story is only glimpsed at the beginning and end of the movie.

There is more to black lives than being rescued by the white savior. Yes, it’s great that the godly Brad Pitt helped free Northup from captivity but notice that limited life being assigned to black people – they are victims. We all are aware of how important victim ideology is in the political arena today. Elitists love to tell the story of a Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson but what about the black Saoirse Ronan who stars in Brooklyn. Free blacks had a life in New York beyond the Underground Railroad with stories to tell just as Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, and immigrants from countries besides Norway have to tell. But those stories aren’t told.

For the application of the white-savior complex in Africa, see The White-Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole (The Atlantic, 2012):

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism….Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected.

One of the common tropes of the white-savior is the school teacher in the inner city. You would think that there is no such thing as a black teacher making a difference. The exception is To Sir with Love but that was in England and the students were white.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the same white-savior complex found in the Civil Rights movement on America’s first original sin also has been applied to Indians on America’s second original sin. Defining Indians as “Indigenous” defines them as existing solely in terms of white people, as having no existence until the dominant people arrived and as having no other relationship with whites except as victims. Why do Indians allow white people to define them as victims instead of calling the, Indians or using the name of their people? What choice do they have against the dominant population seeking to redeem itself?