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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.

“Indigenous” versus “Indian”: What Word Should Be Used?

This blog is a continuation of a study deriving from an “Exchange” in the journal of the American Historical Association. The title of the Exchange is “Living with the Past: Thoughts on Community Collaboration and Difficult History in Native American and Indigenous Studies.” It consisted of a review of two books on King Philips War (1676) and one organization, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

The first blog I wrote on this Exchange addressed the critique of and the defense of the NAISA and its scholarship by the participants (Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode).

The second blog on this Exchange, Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), focused on the subject of violence in one of the two reviewed books. For whatever reason, the author of that book did not participate in the Exchange while the author of the other book did. The absence of the author’s participation meant the accusations about the shortcomings in the scholarship were not refuted.

In this blog, I wish to address a topic not included in the Exchange but implicit in it. This has to do with the terminology used by the scholars, specifically the words “Indigenous” and “Indian.” In many instances the author has no choice – the reference is to an organization, conference, book or article title which has the word “Indigenous” or “Indian” in it. I did not scrutinize the Exchange to differentiate between when the use of a term was the author’s choice or not. In 32+ pages of the journal, the word “Indigenous” was used 110 times. In the same space the word “Indian” was used 34 times. This roughly 3:1 ratio is not a scientific experiment. I suspect many of the 34 times the word “Indian” was used in the Exchange was because the author had no choice, for example if one was referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian or the American Indian Quarterly. The question I have, in baseball terms, is what is the value added in the use of “Indigenous” over “Indian”? What is the reason for the change?


Speaking of the NMAI, I had the opportunity to participate in three online presentations by the NMAI since I read the Exchange. In all three instances, an immediate question raised or anticipated was what to call “Indians.” Since many of the participants were teachers and the NMAI specifically was reaching out to the education community in these programs, the urgency and immediacy of this question suggests that teachers do not want to commit a politically incorrect faux pas and be hauled off before the Thought Police by a white parent of a white student claiming insensitive and disrespectful language is being used in the classroom.

The NMAI is well aware of the situation. It even has prepared a “cheat’ sheet teachers can use. In general terms the Indian and white instructors in these sessions say that the people prefer to be called who are they are whatever that particular tribe or nation name happens to be. This makes sense.  One says Japanese-American about an American citizen of Japanese descent for instance. When referring to people collectively, say not to Polish-Americans but to all Americans of European descent, then the preferred terms according to the NMAI are American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native which can be used interchangeably.

NMAI is aware that the term “Native” can be problematic. The reason is Americans born in the United States are native Americans as well (see If You Are a Native New Yorker, Are You a Native American?: The Weaponization of “Native” and the Culture Wars). In fact, since I started writing this blog I have come across multiple attestations of people being referred to as native New Yorkers or of a particular borough. True, one person’s ancestors can have been a Native American earlier than when your immigrant ancestors first had a child born in the United States, but one’s “nativeness” is determined at your birth, not by you parents or distant ancestors. At some level the NMAI may be aware that privileging one group as more “Native American” than another group can be a micro aggression to a non-Indian person born in America.

Strangely enough, the term “Indigenous” did not come up in these sessions as a suggested name for Indians. For more on this topic see Warrior, R., “Indian,” in B. Burgett and G. Hendler (eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2014). Personally, I think “Turtle Island people” or “Turtle-Island-Americans” would be a more respectful name. It draws on the actual Indian culture without privileging it.


The question remains what is the value added of the term “Indigenous” instead of “Indian”? One may also add what the purpose was in the invention of the term in the first place?

Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England is a book by Jean O’Brien who participated in the Exchange. The description of the book is:

Across nineteenth-century New England, antiquarians and community leaders wrote hundreds of local histories about the founding and growth of their cities and towns. Ranging from pamphlets to multivolume treatments, these narratives shared a preoccupation with establishing the region as the cradle of an Anglo-Saxon nation and the center of a modern American culture. They also insisted, often in mournful tones, that New England’s original inhabitants, the Indians, had become extinct, even though many Indians still lived in the very towns being chronicled. This book argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, the book explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness. (Bold added)

In the book there are no uses of the term “Indigenous” and 7 examples of “indigenous.” That suggests to me the usage is based on the traditional meaning as native to a place. Exactly when “indigenous” shifted to being “Indigenous,” I don’t know. The book also uses the term “Indian” approximately 1500 times. Evidently there was no problem in the Indian author using the term “Indian” and no obligation to use “Indigenous.”

On the book jacket, Philip J. Deloria, who also was part of the Exchange, wrote:

Driven by a creative reading of hundreds of local histories, Jean M. O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting reinvigorates the old question of the ‘vanishing Indian‘ in surprising ways, taking readers into the contradictions surrounding race and modernity, and offering an ur-history of the politics of tribal termination, dual citizenship, and cultural politics.

Deloria is the author of the three books Playing Indian, Indians in Unexpected Places, and Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract.

The book jacket description of the book is:

In Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.

 This description provides a constructive basis for individual historical societies in both the three states mentioned and elsewhere to examine how the Indian stories in their own communities have been dismissed, ignored or erased. That is consistent with my previously stated view that historical societies should tell the story of their land from Ice Age to Global Warming. The identification of the Indian history would seem to be a productive undertaking although I doubt most individual historical societies have the resources to do so or that there sufficient number of experts who can be consulted to help them.


Unfortunately, local historical societies may not have gotten the message that it is acceptable to investigate the Indian history in their own community. Here is one example.

“Village Erasing ‘Indian’” was the front page headline of an article in The Freemans Journal, Cooperstown, New York. It seems that a Village trustee noticed the wording on a history marker at Council Rock, an Indian meeting place where the Susquehanna River flows out of Otsego Lake. The resident was shocked to see the text was: “Council Rock: Famous Meeting Place of the Indians.” The Trustee was aghast saying:

“I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed it previously. The sign refers to Native Americans as ‘Indians.’ It’s racially insensitive and incorrect, and it needs to be updated.”

That outrage sparked another Trustee to voice concern about another sign about the Indian Grave a few blocks from the meeting.

The first Trustee expressed concern about “this moment of social awareness and racial awareness” in the United States and called for contacting the New York State Department of Education responsible for state history markers. It was felt that the village needed to get out ahead of the “problem.”

A more intelligent Trustee commented that the “we shouldn’t assume what is politically correct or culturally correct. We need to do our due diligence.” This comment demonstrates the elevation of politically correct standards as the basis for rendering a decision. Think about that for a moment. A village government acknowledged that it was obligated to comply with politically correct standards even though Indians have expressed no objection to the term. The only issue for the village was the determination of what those standards was.

The reporter concluded the article with the droll comment that “The Indian Hunter” statue, the most famous statue in the village, was not mentioned during the deliberations.

As one might expect, the June 22, 2020, meeting led to a community response on the newspaper’s website. Here are some salient remarks.

1. One resident expressed the notion that to be truly sensitive to Native Americans meant returning the lands in Cooperstown taken from them. He suggested starting with the lakefront homes of one Trustee and the mother of a second Trustee.
2. One anonymous resident went to the NMAI website showing the information reported above. It noted the acceptability of the term “Indian” and the preference to call Indians by their tribal name.
3. A third resident responded to the oversight of not mentioning the Indian hunter statue. After all, hunting depicts Native Americans in a stereotypical appearance that could offend someone. [Apparently hunters are an offensive image to Indians. Indeed it is hard to image any culture anywhere at any time having a hunter as a hero.] This person went on to call for the removal of the statue of James Fenimore Cooper and changing the names of Fenimore Park, Fenimore Museum, and Cooperstown itself. After all, who knows what might be offensive to someone in the future. Ironically this article appeared in the local paper [yes, one still exists in Cooperstown] right next to right my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? which the paper had published. This resident may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek as the comment ended: “Better to take it all down and change all the names. George Orwell would be proud.”
4. One resident was rather upset. “Who in the hell said ‘Indian’ is racist? No white person has that right? And it if was offensive, don’t you think it would have been changed years ago.”

The reference may also have to a previous village project which involved working with Mohawks and Oneidas where the issue of “Indian” hadn’t been raised.

The answer to the resident’s question about who determined the word Indian is racist would seem to be white people, not all white people, just some white people as this editorial states in discussing a related issue on the use of the term “Native American.”

Native American vs. American Indian: Political correctness dishonors traditional chiefs of old

This editorial by the Native Sun News Editorial Board (Sioux) in Rapid City, South Dakota began with that question and an answer.

Who decided for us that we should be called “Native Americans?”

It was the mainstream media of course….

The activist Russell Means preferred the name American Indian. He would say that just as you have Mexican Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans, you should have American Indians….

During the activist days of the 1960s and 70s the U. S. Government responded to the activists’ protests by proposing the term “Native American.” And so the anti-government activists decided to accept the name Native American, a name suggested by the United States Government, a government that they despised. Say what?

That sad part of this entire fiasco is that so many of the so-called “elitist Indians” have allowed themselves to be bullied into using the name “Native Americans” and even “Native” by a white media that seems to have set the agenda for what we should be called. [The questions then to be asked is why did these white people did this and since whites are the dominant culture, what can Indians do to resist?]

One elderly Lakota man from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation said recently, “If some Indians want to be called Native Americans or Natives, let them be called that, but I was born an Indian and I shall die an Indian. [This comment matches the words of Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times: My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American (John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History).

So if you travel to any Indian reservation out west you will soon discover that nearly all of the indigenous people refer to themselves as “Indian,” especially the elders who are still fluent in their Indian language. As Chief Oliver Red Cloud said a few years before he died, “I am Lakota and I am Indian.”

As an Indian newspaper we must be very careful that what we call ourselves is not dictated to us by the white media. We have been Indians for a few hundred years and the name carries our history. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Little Wound (Read their quotes) all called themselves “Indian” and they said it with pride. Should we dishonor them by saying they were wrong?

Political correctness be damned: We will use “Indian” if and when we choose. We will not be intimidated by the politically correct bunch or the white media.

The question raised by the teachers and the debate in Cooperstown suggest if Indians have not been intimidated by the politically correct, then non-Indians have. That still leaves open the question of the value added by using the term “Indigenous” instead of Indian.

To be continued.