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How Colonial Language Enforces Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples

Of Scalps and Savages

by RUTH HOPKINS

Before I head out the door, I watch Morning Joe on MSNBC. It’s part of my workday routine. Yesterday they were talking about the latest issue of the New Republic and its lead story, entitled, “How the NRA is Going Down: This is How the NRA Ends.” Since the Newtown tragedy, Republican Joe Scarborough, the show’s host, is openly advocating for gun control. Still, Joe disagreed with the assertion that the NRA’s power and influence is eroding, especially in the wake of recently defeated gun control legislation.

In the midst of this exchange, John Heilemann, an author, journalist and political analyst who frequents Morning Joe (and who occasionally says things that make sense to me), said, “But who’s the SCALP?” John paraphrased this statement by saying, “who’s gonna pay the price for having voted the wrong way?” In other words, John was questioning whether any of the congressmen who voted against the recent legislation in question will be defeated next election specifically because they voted against gun control, i.e. who will be the “scalp” (defined in the dictionary as a “trophy of victory”) that gun control proponents win.

Mr. Heilemann made a perfectly rational argument. Unfortunately his archaic phraseology took me right out of the conversation. The moment he said, “Who’s the SCALP?” my mind immediately raced to the fact that my ancestors (the Dakota people) were hunted down and murdered in their Minnesota homelands in the late 1800s, when then Governor Ramsey placed a $200 bounty on their scalps. Yes, you read that correctly. It was once government policy to encourage civilians to hunt down American Indian men, women and children (human beings), kill them, and rip the flesh from their skulls. Anyone who did so was rewarded handsomely for it.

I wanted to talk about gun control. Hell, I might have written about it. Instead, I’m writing about how colonial language can be used as a tool to denigrate and discriminate against Native people alive today, who are ready and willing to participate in logical conversations with other cogent human beings but are hindered from doing so because of its interjection. These semantics of white privilege serve to enforce old colonial notions that attempt to reduce Natives to primitive caricatures. It suggests that we are not equals. It implies that mainstream society owns Native identity, or that we as Natives are relegated to the past. Mainstream Native appropriation language like, “He went off the reservation,” “Let’s have a powwow,” or “Who’s the SCALP,” and racial slurs like “Pochahottie,” “Redskin,” and “Savage,” among others, all discriminate against Natives and prohibit effective dialogue.

The U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, still cites case law that calls Native people “savages.” Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Worcester v.Georgia (1832), Ex Parte Crowdog (1883), and Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States (1955) all refer to Native people as savages directly, or use the language of savagery to justify treating Native people as less than human and unworthy of rights afforded to non-Natives. These cases, in large part, form the basis of Federal Indian Law.

You see, it was crucial for European colonialists to paint Natives as aggressors to justify their own violence against the original inhabitants of this land. While Natives fought against settlers, these battles were waged primarily in self-defense. America invented the “savage Indian” to subjugate Natives, abrogate Tribe’s sovereign rights, and so they could freely initiate war against them for any reason whatsoever. As long as Indigenous peoples are consigned to the post of savage, we are the “other,” and those in power can argue that they do not need to follow their own laws when it comes to us. We are still being forced to deal with the consequences of this “savage” invention.

This column isn’t about whether I took offense to a statement made on a television show. This is about equality. To truly benefit from a diverse global society, we must raise public discourse above antiquated race-based language couched in manifest destiny. Ignorance is no excuse, because Natives are not silent- you’ve only to hear us.

As far as debate is concerned, read Sun Tzu. Throw away your race-based terminology and discover the true nature of your adversary, or ally. Learn about Native history and who we are. To get respect, you must give it. This is how you invite us in as intellectual, physical, and spiritual equals. This is how you might win an argument against me, based on merit alone. But be warned, I count coup with keystrokes and my arrows are dipped in ink. Now, who’s the scalp?

Ruth Hopkins is a Native American writer, blogger, Judge, administrator, a founding writer at Lastrealindians.com, and columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.