Of Words that Won’t


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I believe I was in college when I first had someone tell me I shouldn’t use the word ‘Indian.’ I had certainly heard plenty of critical commentary about Christopher Columbus, and at least some of that commentary had included a remark or two on the absurdity of applying the word ‘Indian’ to the indigenous population of the Americas. Still, in the lily-white neighborhoods of my upbringing, this word became just another absurdity in a world that already had plenty of them. So, when my Navajo classmate, Wendy, expressed a clear preference for ‘Native American,’ this was new. What was new about it wasn’t the critique of the word ‘Indian’; it was the sense that the critique mattered.

I wish I could say that I responded appropriately, but I’m afraid I can’t.

There was whitesplaining; let’s just leave it at that.


Admittedly, the rest of this post could qualify as more of the same. I hope not, but we’ll see…


I’ve heard a couple of interesting theories about the origin of the term, ‘Indian,’ but I’m not sure that any of them have really nailed down the concept. Origins are not the only rubric by which we might assess the meaning of a term, and folk-etymologies are infamously inaccurate, so the whole question of where the word came from has to be taken with a grain of salt. The notion that Columbus thought he was in India is an incorrect correction, at best. Columbus thought he was in the East Indies. That may sound like a fussy point to make, but folks ought not to point out one mistake only to land another. Somewhere in his work, the historian of religion, Sam Gill, suggests that Europeans used term ‘Indian’ as a kind of catch-all category for everyone who lived east of the Indus River. By this account, the problem with the term is not so much a clear factual error as a kind of vagueness, that and a kind of projection from European thought, not at all unlike those associated with ‘orientalism’ in other historical contexts. Another interesting take comes from the noted activist, Russell Means. According to Means, the term originally meant “‘under God,’ thus making it an accurate observation of the spirituality of America’s indigenous peoples. At a time when many were switching from ‘Indian’ to ‘Native American,’ Means embraced ‘Indian,’ even insisted upon it. Of course, this may have had something to do with branding. Means was of course a long-time member of “The American Indian Movement (AIM),” which might have given him a little extra reason to hold onto the label. In the end, it seems that most of the indigenous peoples of North America, have shifted to ‘Native American,’ and along with them, so have the bulk of those seeking to support indigenous peoples or simply to show respect. Mileage always varies, but ‘Native American’ seems to be the norm at this point.


I am occasionally reminded that there is at least one problem with ‘Indian’ that “Native American’ does not solve, that is the vagueness of such a catch-all term. This vagueness facilitates a range of problematic thinking. For example, I lost track of the people who asked me if I lived in a teepee while I was living on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo people had never lived in teepees, but the imagination of the American public (and the world at large) often puts them in teepees for the same reason that it put so many peoples from the great plains in Monument Valley for so many classic westerns. To the public at large, an ‘Indian’ is an Indian, and because we can use the same word for so many peoples they think the word must tell us something about them. That the term is really little more than a default category for a broad range of people whose customs were poorly understood when the term was coined doesn’t seem to enter folks thinking, at least not giving them a verbal shove in the right direction. Still, to the degree that this is a problem with ‘Indian’ that problem is not much improved by saying ‘Native American.’ Since I began focusing my Native American studies in grad school, I have had a couple friends and family ask me what “Indians believed” about topics like God, reincarnation, or the afterlife in general. Today, I am sometimes asked what ‘Native Americans’ think about the same topics. I often find myself responding to these questions by asking which tribe? Others might ask them “why they are asking these questions of a white guy?” In any event, the problems with such questions are not much improved by the change in vocabulary. Whichever word we might use, the question assumes implications that just aren’ty there.


I happened into an interesting illustration of the problem one day while surfing travel blogs. One of these had a lovely account of a couple’s visit to the National Monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Their account was thoughtful and respectful, and I do not mean to direct negative attention their way (and in any event, I can no longer find it, hence the lack of a link), but one thing about their post stuck out in my mind. They made a point to say that their tour guide had been a student at the nearby Little Bighorn College, a tribal college, so they had gotten “the Native American point of view” on the battle. (I believe I got the quote right, but in any event, that was certainly the gist of it.)

When people address the significance of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass) to Native Americans, they are usually thinking in terms of those who fought against Custer and his troops. That would be Cheyenne and Lakota for the most part, (though there were some Arapaho in the village too.) I can’t help but think, those who read the blog in question will naturally think the “Native American” perspective mentioned in the blog will reflect the point of view of those peoples, but Little Bighorn College is on the Crow Agency, and the student in question was very likely Crow. In fact, his or her ancestors may very well have included some of Custer’s scouts. To the degree that his or her native identity may have shaped the story these bloggers heard, it is unlikely that it was shaped in the manner most readers would have imagined.

Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that a Crow’s perspective on the battle of Little Bighorn should weigh less than that of a Cheyenne or Lakota. Quite the contrary! They had their reasons for siding with the U.S. in the Great Sioux War, and I wish those reasons were better understood by the public at large. What I am suggesting is that the difference in this case matters. There is a difference between the perspective of someone whose ancestors fought against Custer and someone whose ancestors allied themselves with him. That difference is easily obscured when using terms like ‘Native American’ or ‘Indian.’

…which reminds me of one discussion I had about these issues with my own students at Diné College on the Navajo Nation many years ago. Fed up with my efforts to problematize every term available for the indigenous people at large, one of my own students just asked; “How about Diné?”

…which got us to the end of the lesson about 15 minutes early.

Don’t get me wrong; there are no magic solutions to any of these problems, but some words help us more than others. There are many contexts in which words like “Indian” or “Native American” are tough to avoid, but when you know which specific people you are talking about, it is almost always better to name the indigenous community in question.

A few pics from Little Bighorn College.

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A few pics from the Little Bighorn battlefield.

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And a couple random pics from around the area.

Chicano Park-Adjacent Murals


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A few posts back, I focused on the murals of Chicano Park in San Diego, but I forgot to post a whole section of pictures that are just across some trolley tracks from Barrio Logan where Chicano Park is located. These seem rather distinct from those at Chicano Park, both in terms of thematic content and color palette. As an outsider, I am rather prone to lump them in together with those of Chicano Park, but these do seem like they probably have a story of their own. I just don’t know what it is.

I looked around a bit, but I haven’t found anything to explain this particular batch of street art.

Anyway, here they is!

(Click to embiggen)

Random Sunset


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So on last Christmas Eve, I was up on a park overlooking Glendora California, and I noticed the way the sun light was reflecting off some of the buildings below. I kept trying to take pictures of it, and they were kinda neat, but they really didn’t pop, so to speak. I moved up and down the trail I was on, looking for the best angle, and nothing I did seemed to make this potentially interesting picture work. Finally, I glanced over to my right and saw this…

A Park Under a Bridge


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As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently spent some time in San Diego. Whenever I get down to civilization, I tend to look for street art. San Diego had plenty of it. One location in particular stands out, Chicano Park. Many of the murals express explicit historical commentary, a fact all the more significant in light of the history of the park itself. It is the product of local unrest, a local community outraged at a series of developments diminishing the quality of life for its residents. The community had been separated from the waterfront by Naval installations, bisected by freeways and zoned in a manner hardly conducive to residential living. Plans to develop a highway patrol station seem to have been the final straw. It took an occupation to create the park as it presently exists.

And more of course!

Honestly, the stories I found here are a bit beyond me. So, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. That, and perhaps a link or two.

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A few more from around the neighborhood.

And some small pieces in the area.

Will Someone Give that Man a Drumstick!


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“I want a drum stick”

The old man hunched over the counter at the Kaintuck Chicken Massacre with his eyes glued on the roasted chicken. I couldn’t quite hear the young man behind the counter just yet, but I could see the old man pointing at the piece he wanted.

“I want a drum stick”

This time I could year the young teenager responding; “Do you want a 3-piece or a 5, piece. The meal comes with…”

“I want a drum stick!”

The old guy knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a drum stick. A decade or two earlier, this old fella might have adapted his order to the menu, but now the details were clearly nonsense to him. He was pointing right at the piece he wanted. Why wasn’t that enough?The kid, for his part, wasn’t authorized to act on the desire for a single drum stick. The buttons on the cash register didn’t include that option. He needed to translate the order into something else, something that fit the categories he was allowed to provide. In a few years, the young man might have had the confidence to attempt an explanation, but the old man wasn’t listening anyway, and he had no idea how to deal with the situation. so he just kept repeating himself.

The old man, of course did the same;

“I want a drum stick.

Somewhere in the back, I imagined, there must be a manager, someone endowed with sufficient authority to just give the old man a drumstick, perhaps resolving the technical problem by putting it on the house. Maybe, maybe not. A manager might well have insisted on the usual categories just as the kid had. In any event, there was no manager up near the cash registers. So, the kid just kept repeating the official options.

And the old man just kept repeating himself.

Decades later, I can still hear the old guy’s words as I took my own order out the door.

“I want a drumstick!”

When San Diego Alaskitates!


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The lower 48 can seem like a foreign country, not always, but often enough. It’s strange to think so. I mean, I lived down there for over 40 years, so why would it seem so strange to me now? Anyway, it often does.

This feeling came through particularly strong last semester when I agreed to accompany a minor to a chemistry conference in San Diego. I often find myself working on the margins of my own fields, but I have to admit this one was a little bit of a stretch. So, it was with particular joy that I suddenly found myself looking at a bit of Alaskan history.

Right there in San Diego.

I had just descended below deck aboard The Star of India, one of several ships at the Maritime Museum, and there it was, a whole display on the Alaskan fish packing industry, or at least the role The Star of Indian played in shipping the products of fishing out to other parts. I was already enjoying the museum, and I long since warmed to my stay in San Diego when I saw this, and then my face lit right up.

There is something a little perverse about the trajectory that brings me here from the edge of civilization near to its centers only to find the ghosts of so many fish who’ve made that same trip themselves. Whether it’s a perverse irony or a perverse synchrony, I’m not sure, but either way these artifacts of an extractive industry shouldn’t really have surprised me. I enjoy living on the edge of nowhere, though I do so with the full benefits of the modern world to keep me warm and well connected to the rest of y’all, and of course, there is no real escape from the global economy. If places like Alaska are good for fishing, it goes without saying that when they are good enough, a fair portion of stories told about those fish will be told in other places.

Places like San Diego.

Anyway, you never know when a trip out will lead you to a little glimpse of home.


Originally named the Euterpe, this vessel was built in 1863. She hauled salmon out of Alaska from 1902 to 1923, being renamed The Star of India in 1906. As steamships came to dominate the industry, she was finally retired in 1926. Today, she is docked at the Maritime Museum, though she is still seaworthy. You can find a few videos of her out on the water.

(click to embiggen.)

Some less fishy photos of the Star.

The Star at Sea

A Republic of Obligatory Anachronism!

It has become a common gambit to tell people the United States of America is not a democracy; it is a republic. This argument seems to be coming from right wing circles, for the most part anyway. It gets a lot of its force from the fact that so many on left and even in the middle ground of our nation’s politics commonly refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ It gets a lot more force from the fact that at least some of the nation’s founding fathers expressed reservations about democracy. So, anyone casually referring to the nation as a ‘democracy’ becomes low hanging fruit for a quick correction easily supported by a few quick references to some of America’s founding documents. And of course the Republican party gets a little pay-off out of nudging out vocabulary in the direction of their own party moniker.

Fake quotes from America’s founders help to exaggerate the contrast even to the point of caricature (e.g. Not-Jefferson on Democracy, Two Wolves and a Franklin). It is also common to find those making the correction suggesting that anyone who refers to America as a ‘democracy’ must be advocating the very horribles imagined in such spurious quotations.

People do this all the time.

But are they really doing something?

(When they do, this I mean.)

Are people really doing something when they do this?

Yes! They are indeed doing something.

What they are doing is semantics.

That’s right! At bottom, this is a word game, nothing more. What’s more, it’s not a particularly helpful word game, owing to a deceptive shift in meaning over the course of the argument. Folks who make this argument aren’t helping u to understand anything; they are confounding real issues about how to design a government with minor shifts in vocabulary.


I’m not normally a fan of argumentum ad dictionary, but this topic is all about definitions, so let’s take a moment to cover a few options.

Democracy: We’ll go with Merriam Webster Online

1a: government by the people especially rule of the majority

b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

2: a political unit that has a democratic government

3 capitalized the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S. from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy— C. M. Roberts

4: the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority

5: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

Republic: Also using Merriam Webster…

1a(1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president

(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government

b(1): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government

c: a usually specified republican government of a political unit the French Fourth Republic

2: a body of persons freely engaged in a specified activity the republic of letters

3: a constituent political and territorial unit of the former nations of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia

Of course, there are plenty of other dictionaries out there, but the better ones are going to have MORE rather than less options for the meaning of the terms in question, and those up above are pretty representative of the options you’ll find in other dictionaries (though the specific examples mentioned are likely to vary). So, I am going with this.


What I want to note right off the bat here is the fact that government outlined in the U.S. Constitution, with its system of elected representatives, would match definition 1b for ‘Democracy’ above, and also definition 1b for ‘Republic’ above. I used to use a government textbook that spoke of the U.S. as a ‘representative democracy’ or an ‘indirect democracy’ as well, both phrases quite synonymous with common uses of the term ‘republic’ or ‘republican government.” In my experience, these are common ways of talking about the subject. In fact, I’ll wager that that is what people generally have in mind when they refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ They would be quite surprised to find that they are referring to a direct democracy with no constitutional restrictions on government authority (as those using the not-a-democracy gambit typically suggest).

Simply put; there is, in every day usage, considerable range of overlap between the meaning of ‘democracy’ and the meaning of ‘republic.’ The two words are commonly used to refer to the same thing.


Okay, so where do people get the idea that they are different? They do so because America’s founding fathers were openly skeptical of democracy. Sometimes the founders expressed this in terms of a need check extreme forms of democracy and sometimes they voiced opposition to democracy altogether. And yet, their comments on the subject were not uniformly negative. It says something that the Jefferson and Madison faction of post-Constitution politics was (and is) known as the Democratic-Republicans. If democracy and republicanism could be juxtaposed in opposition to one another, they could also be seen as complementary. Those snarking about how the United states is a ‘republic’ and not a ‘democracy’ take notice of the one theme while seeking to hide the other.

Perhaps the most strident diatribe against a democracy in the founding era comes from Federalist 10, written by James Madison. The relevant passages begin…

From this view of the subject, it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.

It’s worth noting the hedge in Madison’s comments at this point in the article; he is speaking of “pure democracy,” which seems to leave open the possibility of other not-so-pure democracies. Also, it’s worth noting that he attributes two separate features to this pure democracy; small size and direct participation. The former is a direct function of the purpose of the Federalist papers; they are an effort to sell the Constitution to the public, and along with the Constitution, a much larger and stronger central government. Madison is making a case for a larger government by telling us that smaller governments are more prone to corruption by factional interests. That is part of what he means when he contrasts ‘democracy’ with ‘republic.’ Significantly, this theme runs quite counter to the politics of the Republican Party with its current penchant for bashing big-gov. So, it should be no surprise that those insisting America is a republic would not take up this aspect of Madison’s thinking. The second theme, that direct democracy is a problem (i.e. that letting the people as a whole make decisions about government themselves) makes more of an appearance in their rhetoric. At least some of those telling us the USA is not a democracy will call attention to the representative nature of our legislative process. A lot of educational materials will put that closer to the center of a discussion on the topic. So, did Madison.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure, and the efficacy which it must derive from the union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic, are first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Note that Madison describes the U.S. model of government in terms of elected representatives which would put it squarely in the domain found in definitions 1b above for both ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ found in the dictionary above. That Madison refers to this as a republican model of government in contrast to a ‘pure democracy’ does not change the fact that today, people use the word ‘democracy in a manner that is precisely consistent with his own use of ‘republic.’ The point he is making is about the virtues of elected representatives, and there is absolutely no reason to believe this point – or would be – lost on those who refer to the present government of the United States as a ‘democracy.’ There is no reason to suppose that modern usage of the word ‘democracy’ (particularly in reference to the U.S. Government) is meant to apply strictly to direct democracies as Madison does in Federalist 10.

By the end of Federalist 10, Madison has dropped his hedge, and the contrast is simply between a democracy and a republic. The fact remains, however, that Madison’s use of the term is significantly more narrow than that of modern usage in which the word ‘democracy’ is commonly taken to include representative government or indirect democracy. If Madison (or any other founder restricting the term to a comparably narrow range of meaning) rejects democracy, then what stands between them and those Americans who think they live in a democracy is a question of semantics, NOT factual or practical matters. Those producing this sophomoric correction never account for the shift in meaning. They would prefer to pretend that they are weighing in on a matter of great substance.


Note: Another way of distinguishing a ‘republic’ from a ‘democracy’ is to talk about the role of a constitution as a document defining the terms of government authority and restricting that authority to specific contexts of application. This is particularly, important, some would suggest, insofar as a constitutional republic (theoretically) prevents the majority from voting away the rights of a minority. This too is deceptive. Those referring to the USA as a ‘democracy’ are not ignorant of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, nor are they talking about government in a way that negates the significance of either. In college, the distinction is often made between a “strict majoritarian democracy” and a government limited by the terms of a Constitution. It could be added that such provisions are still part of a democratic process, because even constitutions can be modified (albeit usually by the higher standard of a supermajority vote) and in the U.S. at least, our legislative representatives are still elected to office. People who call the U.S. a ‘democracy’ know this, and they certainly aren’t suggesting in such references that the Bill of rights or the proscriptions on government authority in Article 8 section 9 should be set aside.


I should add that the matter is not entirely trivial. The Constitution incorporates democratic principles into government in a variety of ways, balancing them off against measures concentrating power in elite circles. We can ask legitimate questions about how well these serve the people (or even whether or not they were ever meant to serve the people), but any questions about what we should do are poorly served by this simple either-or distinction. Recent efforts to subvert the democratic elements of U.S. government (such as the independent state legislature theory) pose a real threat to the integrity of American government.

Not to mention, a flagrant attempt to subvert the result of an election!

There are those who would genuinely prefer it if America were less democratic. This gambit gives them a cheap shortcut to an agenda they might find more difficult to articulate in responsible terms.


Semantic discussion should help us clarify meaning, not obscure it in the immediate partisan interests of those seeking to gain the rhetorical upper hand. There is a legitimate point to be made here, that America’s founding fathers had their concerns about democratic government. That point is not well made by opportunistic gotcha games like the notion that our nation is not a democracy because it is actually a constitutional republic. The United States of America is both.