Squaring Off

How the West Was Worded

James Joseph Buss on Native Americans and the Language of Manifest Destiny

In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Oklahoma City University historian James Joseph Buss, author of Winning the West with Words: Language and Conquest in the Lower Great Lakes.

Nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans wiped out many of the Midwest’s Native Americans physically, with guns and disease, and symbolically-by employing language that erased them from the landscape. Winning the West with Words explores how Anglo-Americans rewrote the narrative of their region and how Native Americans have shaped our historical memory.

1) You write that the terms “pioneering” and “American progress” were adopted by western settlers to describe and justify their actions. How are we using these terms today?

Before the 1830s, western settlers labeled themselves as “frontiersmen,” “backwoodsmen,” “settlers,” etc. But easterners viewed many of those titles as pejorative. Additionally, appellations like that of “frontiersmen” often highlighted conflict between Anglo-Americans and native people. “Pioneering” and “progress” emerged as rhetorical devices by which Americans could share a collective national identity that celebrated state development and ignored negative aspects to the colonization of the American West.

Today the language of “pioneering” and “progress” certainly has expanded beyond 19th-century use of the terms. We talk about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as “pioneers” and “American progress” in terms of the United States’ outreach as a global leader, but the same underlying issues of nation and identity animate our use of these words and phrases. Still, I worry that the power of these terms to emphasize the positive and mask the negative still operates in American society.

2) Whose responsibility is it to create a more transparent and honest narrative of American history? Is it feasible for a more candid historical narrative to become the norm?

It’s a shared responsibility. The narrative of settler-colonialism has always been malleable, precisely because so many voices have been involved in its formation. It’s constantly being challenged and changed. In fact, scholars have spent the past four or five decades exposing the lies that Americans have told themselves about their own history. But merely constructing an alternate grand narrative does not recognize how marginalized people view themselves or their own histories. Perhaps we have to think beyond a history of America as a single story.

3) How did the “language of settlement” work in conjunction with the physical destruction of the native peoples?

In the history of the United States, language and physical conquest often have worked hand-in-hand. While physical slaughter and decimation may seem like things of the past, the “language of settlement” continues to operate as a means of Anglo-American domination. When Americans describe events such as removal or conquest, they almost always do so in the passive voice: Indians were removed. Native people were murdered. Each of these sentences, only half complete, separates the actor from the action. No one names who forced removal or who murdered indigenous people. In essence, Americans have employed a rhetoric of “passive conquest” to justify or ignore horrific actions of the past.

Furthermore, the language of settlement often has been employed when the physical slaughter and decimation of Native people could not be completed. In the case of the Great Lakes, when removal ultimately failed to detach each and every Native community from their land, Americans engaged in a form of literary genocide by erasing them from the place-stories of the region. We focus a lot on the physical actions of conquest because they seem tangible and preventable, but we also must remember that knowledge and narration can be used as weapons of dispossession.

4) How and where do Native Americans fit into contemporary American identity?

I don’t think it’s as simple as trying to incorporate Native Americans into a monolithic American history, society, or culture-mainly because I don’t think one exists. And, even if it did, I believe that trying to simply fold indigenous people into that story threatens to replicate and reinforce older colonial processes that people like myself are trying to upend. Instead, I think Americans need to respect the cacophony of voices and worldviews that have emerged from diverse peoples who share the geographic space of the United States (and all of North America).

If the goal of some people is to construct a post-racial, multi-cultural United States whereby everyone assumes a common “American identity,” then we have to ask ourselves, what do indigenous people give up in order to fit into that construed identity? Does it mean that Native people need to relinquish claims of sovereignty, determination, and indigeneity? I think that we have to start thinking beyond an “American identity” and start envisioning a future where indigenous people neither are asked nor forced to seek inclusion into a settler nation-state.

5) How can we move toward a more accurate portrait of indigenous people that employs less stereotypical language than our current archetypal words, phrases, and images?

We might begin by moving away from linear narratives that locate indigenous peoples in the past or downplay a continued Native identity in the present. This obscures the consequences of colonialism by soothing Anglo guilt and ignoring the violence of dispossession. It simultaneously perpetuates a reductionist view of Native Americans as either a people of the past (living in teepees) or a privileged class of American citizens living in the present (casinos). Both of these powerful tropes ignore modern concepts of indigenous sovereignty.

I think the Internet holds the potential for presenting alternatives and posing challenges to commonly held stereotypes of Native people. The Internet provides a location where indigenous voices might be transmitted, received, and archived as counterevidence. Cyberspace also provides a place for people to challenge harmful stereotypes of indigenous people (or rebuff corporations that market indigeneity) before they can become entrenched in American popular culture. For example, at the same time that Navajo leaders recently sued Urban Outfitters for appropriating the Navajo name for a tacky line of clothing, indigenous and non-indigenous voices flooded the Internet to blast the company and condemn the choice of its executives. The speed and accessibility of the Internet amplified those voices and provided an outlet for critiques of indigenous appropriation that resulted in action something that would have been more difficult in previous decades or centuries.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon.

*Photo courtesy of OZinOH.