Words Matter Case Study

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Words matter: the words we use, both as individuals and as nations, reflect our values, beliefs, and attitudes. Our words also carry consequences for our interactions and relationships with others. The words used by both European nations and the United States were important for establishing legal relationships with American Indian Nations. These words not only set the course of American history, but also reveal important underlying values, beliefs, and attitudes that were held toward Native Americans.

Discovery?

1493

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, European nations engaged in extensive overseas exploration, with Spain and Portugal competing as the two dominant powers. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter caetera, which supported Spain's claim to the lands Columbus had recently encountered. The bull claimed that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," suggesting that non-Christians did not hold the same rights to lands as Christians. The words and ideas expressed in the bull were important to establishing a belief that European nations were superior to Native Nations.

"We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time have intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others . . . by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us . . . should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors . . . all islands and mainlands found and to be discovered."

The papal bull Inter caetera, May 4, 1493
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The papal bull Inter caetera, May 4, 1493


"I have learned that you . . . for a long time wanted to search for and discover certain remote and previously unknown islands and continents that have not yet been discovered by others . . . . [W]ith the authority God has given me . . . if your representatives or captains find any such islands, I give to you and your descendants all the islands and continents that are discovered."

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Joey Kipp, Muscogee and Salish
Jacob Hugs, Salish
Discussion Question

What is problematic about the word "discovery" when used in the context of encountering Native lands?

Savage?

1783

As time went on and more imperial European nations sought lands to colonize , interpretations of Native land rights changed. Some European nations recognized the sovereignty of Native Nations and their rights of landownership. Subsequently, legal procedures were adopted to acquire Native lands, including establishing treaties with Native Nations.

The British American colonies recognized Native sovereignty and negotiated with Native Nations for the acquisition of their lands. Following the Revolutionary War, the newly independent United States acquired the territories previously claimed by Great Britain—including Native lands. As the United States grew in size and power, so did its hunger for expansion. Although there was a recognition of Native rights to own lands, official American documents often used terms like "savage" and "uncivilized" to describe Native people. Words such as these served to justify the taking of Native lands, sometimes by treaty and other times through coercion or conquest . The words reveal a harsh truth about how a mindset of superiority persisted in American thought.

"As our settlements approach their country, they must, from the scarcity of game, which that approach will induce to, retire farther back, and dispose of their lands, unless they dwindle compensation to nothing as all savages have done, who gain their sustenance by the chase, when compelled to live in the vicinity of civilized people, this leaves us the country without expense."

Excerpt from a letter to the committee on Indian affairs by General Schuyler, July 29, 1783
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Excerpt from a letter to the committee on Indian affairs by General Schuyler, July 29, 1783


"As our settlements move closer to their territory and cause a shortage of wildlife from the change to the environment, they must move farther away and give up their lands, or their lands' value will diminish to nothing, as all savages have done when forced to live near civilized people, [and] this leaves the country to us at no cost."

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Rylee Arlee, Bitterroot Salish
Shaniya Decker, Turtle Mountain
Discussion Question

How does the word "savage" dehumanize Native Americans?

Civilized?

1823

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that involved a dispute over competing claims to land: one party had purchased the lands directly from an Indian Tribe, while the other received a grant for the same lands from the United States Congress. Although no Native parties were involved in the case, the court's decision carried consequences for the land rights and sovereignty of American Indians. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that even though Native Nations had the right to occupy their lands, their right to sell their lands was limited.

The words that Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion demonstrate that an attitude of superiority over Native Peoples persisted into the legal landscape of an ever-growing United States.

"The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule [Discovery] by which its civilized inhabits now hold this country. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also the right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise."

Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat) 543 (1823)
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Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat) 543 (1823)


"The United States, then, have clearly accepted that great and broad legal power [the act of "Discovery"] by which its civilized inhabitants now control this country. They have and they exercise the rights to the land by which [the country] was acquired. They claim, as all others have claimed, that discovery gave them an exclusive legal authority to end, either by purchase or by war, the Indians' right to occupy the land; and [discovery] gave them also a right to whatever degree of government authority the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise."

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Arianna Henry, Salish Kootenai
Peter Matt, Salish and Sioux
Discussion Questions

What values or beliefs about American Indians are implied in Johnson's use of the word "civilized" to describe non-Indians?

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