Problematic Phrases

This page is intended to provide you with an explanation for why phrases like "war whoop" or "off the reservation" or "like a bunch of wild Indians" or "low man on the totem pole" cause us at AICL to be critical of a book. If you said these phrases to me in conversation, they'd be what is called microaggressions.

All people use certain phrases without thinking. Our parents used them, and their parents used them... We hear them on television and in movies. We read them in books, too, but many of them reflect ignorance, bias, or stereotypical ideas. 

As time permits, I'll add the depth that I provide for "Off the reservation." Below "Off the reservation" are others, arranged alphabetically. They include
"bury the hatchet"
"circle the wagons"
"happy hunting grounds"
"hold down the fort"
"indian giver"
"low man on the totem pole"
"on the warpath"

"Off the reservation"

One example is "off the reservation" which is used to generally used to signify being out of control. Hit pause for a few minute and let's look at that phrase. Bear with me--context is important.

At least as far back as 6000 years (see footnote in article here), three tribes--the Wascoes, the Warm Springs, and the Paiutes--were in what we now know as Oregon. They fished the Columbia and hunted all through that area for their own subsistence, for also for trading purposes.

In the early 1800s, more and more white settlers began moving onto their homelands. In 1855, the US government wanted that land for those settlers. A treaty was negotiated that established the Warm Springs Reservation. The tribes gave up ten million acres of land and reserved the rights to fish, hunt, and gather foods "in their usual and accustomed places" which included places not within the boundaries of the reservation (this summary is based on information provided at the Warm Springs website).

Some years later, commercial fishermen fenced off land along the river and had railroad tracks laid there. Refrigerated train cars were parked next to the river and fish was caught and moved into the train cars. The commercial fishermen argued that the tribes had given up that land in a supplemental treaty in 1865. Sentries were posted to keep Native people from the river. This was, of course, a threat to their livelihood and a treaty violation as well.

Secretary of the Interior's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, J.D.C. Atkins, submitted a history of what transpired to the U.S. House of Representatives 50th Congress (1887-1889). About that 1865 treaty, Atkins reports:*
"... nothing whatever was said to them regarding the giving up of their fishery rights, and that they were simply told the treaty was intended to regulate their manner of leaving the limits of the reservation with passes from the agent to prevent them from being taken for hostiles, the Snake Indians being at the time at war."
That excerpt is interesting, isn't it? For those who don't know, the US government assigned "Indian agents" to tribes. In theory they were responsible for implementing federal policy, but so many were corrupt opportunists that they became regarded in negative ways. There was a lot of fraud and misrepresentation of fact going on but let's stick with the topic at hand.

The excerpt says two things. First, it says that 'you Indians better stay on your reservation because if you don't, someone might think you're a Snake Indian and kill you.' Second, it also says--in effect--that 'for your own good, you can't leave without the agent's permission.'  In other words, if you left the reservation without permission of the Indian agent and got shot by a white person, it is your own damn fault.

This practice wasn't specific to Warm Springs. It was widespread. It was in practice on the Apache reservation in the late 1870s when Geronimo was there. Jackie Thompson Rand (she's Kiowa) writes about Kiowa men in the 1870s needing permission from the agent to hunt off their reservation (see page 91 of her book, Kiowa Humanity and the Invasion of the State, published in 2008 by the University of Nebraska Press). These are only three examples. There are others.

Does this history help you understand why I, or any Native person, would hear "off the reservation" and have a different response to it than someone who doesn't know this history?

It is one phrase, but as I noted above, there are many. AICL's The Foul Among the Good page has visual illustrations that many people find innocuous--but that I object to. This "All you do is complain" page is a companion, of sorts, to The Foul Among The Good. If you're here, it is because I linked this page from a brief post to AICL. Rather than go into a lot of history for some of those posts, I hope it will suffice for you to know that innocuous phrases are borne of certain moments in history that, in effect, yank me right out of a story. Sometimes I'll continue to read. Sometimes I just set the book aside. No matter how good that story or book might be, its magic can be ruined by a single phrase.


*In that congressional hearing, the Secretary of the Interior wanted $3000 to buy some of the land along the Columbia River in Oregon. That land would be held in trust by the U.S. government for the people on the Warm Springs reservation to use for fishing. I do not know if funds were allocated to purchase that parcel of land but can say that the tribes have prevailed in what they agreed to in the 1855 treaty. There have been many cases wherein tribes have successfully fought to defend their reserved rights. This timeline has pertinent dates.

If you're a writer, please rethink your use of "off the reservation" or any of the phrases I'm listing here. You're perpetuating misinformation. If, however, you push back on the use of the phrase in the book, that would be ok, and I'd love to see how you do it.

If you're an editor, have a conversation with your writer about other options. The writer can avoid the phrase, or find a way to critique it within the book.

If you're a reviewer and your journal policy allows you to do so, call it out in your review. If you review at a blog, do call it out!

Update, May 4, 2016: Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Suzan Shown Harjo, wrote an excellent article about "off the reservation" in response to Hilary Clinton's use of it in an April 29 CNN interview, and the ways the phrase was being discussed by Native and non-Native commenters, too. Some said we were "put on reservations." Some said reservations were "concentration" or "internment" camps. Harjo wrote, in part:
While the advocacy and earnestness of Sanders spokesperson Turner are greatly appreciated, she (like others, including some Native commenters) misstates the history by claiming that the ‘government put them on reservations.”
Reservations are Native lands reserved by Native Nations in treaties and agreements, first with each other and later with England, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Russia and other countries, and with the United States, beginning in its earliest days.
Our ancestors were not put on reservations. They reserved lands, including hunting, fishing, gathering and cultural rights in ceded territories, that they trusted the US would help protect them from the rapidly increasing and aggressive foreign populations and their diseases.
Then came the Indian Removal Act, a states’ “rights” law signed by General Andrew Jackson, almost as soon as he became US President. Jackson had helped draft the Act, after he, his former aide de camp and other Indian fighters took over the Senate and House Committees on Indian Affairs. The law required a removal treaty before Native Peoples were wrenched from their homelands.
That began a process of the US backing Georgia, New York and other powerful states to ethnically cleanse certain Native reserved territories by coercing treaties for a mass movement of many Native Peoples to new reserved lands in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma and Kansas).
Whether the Native lands were negotiated in honorable nation-to-nation dealings or at bayonet point, they are our countries today. Insistence that we were forced onto reservations and need to be liberated has led to horrific policies and land loss in the distant and near past. This is one reason we take words and language so seriously, and suit up for teachable moments.


Below are additional phrases that are in use, but problematic. As of this date (May 5, 2016), we (at AICL) have not done in-depth write-ups similar to the one for "off the reservation." They are arranged alphabetically for your convenience, and several are in process.

"bury the hatchet"

(in process)

"circle the wagons"

This is a phrase widely used to say that someone is taking a defensive position. If you pause to think about it, I think you'll understand why it is a problem. The phrase is rooted in stories about "brave pioneers" who were "under attack" by "hostile savages." Hit the pause button.

Those "brave pioneers" were seeking land that belonged to Native peoples who fought to defend that land, their homes, their moms and their kids. Anyone would do that, but the imagery of "circle the wagons" makes Native peoples out as barbaric and aggressive. Who, in fact, was the aggressor?!

More facts: The wagons were circled at night in order to keep the cattle enclosed so they wouldn't wander off. I've also read that, if there was an attack, the wagons were too far apart and slow moving to have actually been put into that circle.

"Happy Hunting Grounds"

That phrase is used to signify where Indians go when they die, but is it? Given that there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US, with distinct languages, histories, locations, and material cultures, you may correctly surmise that there would be differences in how the after life is viewed or named, too.

"hold down the fort"

When Europeans and then, Americans, began to move onto Indigenous lands in what is currently known as the United States, Indigenous people fought to protect their homelands and their families. Who wouldn't? To protect the non-Native settlers--and enable non-Native invasions and acquisitions of Indigenous lands, the US army built forts to protect non-Native people from what they incorrectly characterized as "primitive savages." Today, the phrase is used by someone who is going somewhere, and is telling someone else to be in charge while they are gone. 

"Indian giver"

(in process)

"low man on the totem pole"

People think there is a hierarchy associated with location of a figure on a totem pole. There isn't. I see that phrase used in children's/YA lit to indicate someone with less status than others. A character, for example, may lament that he is the "low man on the totem pole." In 2015, I came across that phrase in Sarah McCarry's All Our Pretty Songs. I wrote to her about it. We had an excellent conversation. See on totems by Sarah McCarry. 

To get a sense of the significance of totem poles, watch the video Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole

"on the warpath"

(in process)
This page will be updated periodically. Last update: 5/4/16.


Jane Gangi said...

This history is so little known. Rarely do I find a college student who has heard of the INdian Boarding Schools. Keep on keeping on, Debbie.

J Cline said...

Look, words change over the years and the original context is lost. Very few people today even connect the phrase 'off the reservation' to Indians, and if they do, you can be sure it's done without racist intent.

But that's not really what you're after, is it? You don't want apologies. The phrase doesn't even really offend you.

Rather, these sorts of objections are really aimed at controlling and censoring the historical narrative concerning native peoples.

Viewing words through a modern lens of right-thinking and then crying insult is a petty, but effective, means of instilling guilt within the dominant culture.

Such tactics enable activist/revisionists to claim the moral authority to censor discussion of native history.

Indian activists attempt to scrub both popular and academic thought of those negative or otherwise threatening behaviors of some Indian peoples - behaviors that directly led to these antiquated phrases becoming popular in the first place.

Check your privilege - the one implicit in being able to enjoy the freedoms and rights of a full citizen of this country.

You are a descendant of interrelated native peoples who collectively committed centuries of atrocity against the immigrants who succeeded in building the United States of America. But we, their descendants, forgive you.

You're lucky to be where and what you are - embraced, enabled, educated and enriched by immigrant culture - so don't look the gift horse in the mouth.

Unknown said...

With all due respect, J Cline, you leave out the part where immigrants strip away the Native American’s principles and values to educate them. There were atrocities committed on both sides when the Europeans settled in America. That does not make the actions right, nor does it excuse bigotry on either side.

We, the Whites, forced the Native American peoples to do what we wished, simply because we had the technology and resources. They did not need our education. They could have learned academics in their own time. As it was, quite a few that went along with the white man's “education” went down the Trail of Tears. You might make the same argument against African Americans, but 'slavery' tends to be a dirty word. Most slaves were well treated, but they were still that, slaves.

I do agree with you that many activists are excessive and most "racism" is not meant as such, but the word 'modern' does not mean 'American'. If you go overseas, for instance, you have an obligation to learn some of their culture, not for academic or philosophic reasons, but so you don’t accidentally call someone a cheap whore in public. It is easy to do, no matter how absurd it might seem.

Diversity and peace will never exist together unless people take history into account and learn what their words actually mean. Most people will understand, but is it hard to watch what you say around different people? Think about this, if nothing else. Many Native Americans refer to themselves as ‘The People’ simply because they do not have a correct name in popular culture. They are not Indian. Adding an ‘s’ to the end does not make it any more accurate.

Reservations are to Native American’s as slavery is to blacks and Nazi’s are to Jews. We’re lucky most people don’t take offense to American people. We have a bad tendency think that, since America is made up of the whole world, it is the world. It is not so. Actually, we are on the fast track to not being the controlling power, and worse unless something drastic happens very soon.

Truthfully, America only became what it was through diversity, supporting personal freedom, and God’s blessings. That same freedom allows people to act like idiots on the internet. Yes, I likely offended some people with those last two comments. The first comment reflects my religious belief, which the every principle behind the constitution protects. Those principles are vital, regardless of what religion. The second comment is common knowledge. No matter what you do, someone is going to be offended. I am just glad it is people like J Cline I am offending. Now, since it is four AM, I will go to sleep. I needed to get that off my chest. :D

Anonymous said...

I am glad this blog exists. I am grateful to be respectfully asked to consider the impact unquestioned mainstream stereotypes have on marginalized groups within our society. The fact that J Cline "forgives" indigenous people for the "atrocity" of defending themselves against wave after wave of invasion and displacement by European settlers is proof that stereotypes and misinformation continue to abound.

I can relate to the discomfort Cline displays in defending him- or herself from a perception of being called racist for using an idiom such as "off the reservation." I too am uncomfortable when pressed to examine my own ignorance and unconscious perpetuation of stereotypes. But eventually, I rediscover my humility and recognize that being respectfully challenged is a good way to learn and grow in awareness.

It appears that some members of the "dominant culture" are infuriated by even a hint of guilt. It seems to make them need to blame someone else for all injustice--for example, in this case Cline blames Native Americans, saying their own actions "directly led to these antiquated phrases becoming popular in the first place." Cline's investment in believing stereotypes to be justified shows enormous resistance to any idea that threatens his or her world view.

I was appalled and dismayed to read Cline's comments. They alone are enough to demonstrate that consciousness-raising blogs such as this one are essential to add more balance to the distorted views of history that still prevail.

LMG said...

On the night I first met my future mother-in-law, the waiter split a bottle of wine into two unequal serving sizes and then said of the lesser: "sorry, I Jewed you down on that one." I had never heard the expression, and when I learned what he was implying I couldn't believe that his comment would forever tarnish my first meeting with my (yes, Jewish) future MIL. Thankfully, we were able to be both dismayed and keep our sense of humor about the moment. But it has been a touchstone to remember the "for granted" racism entrenched in our language.
Elsewhere on this blog I was reading about "off the reservation" which I am again unfamiliar with beyond it's literal meaning of say, a person who grew up on a reservation and then moved off and is living off of it.
I would add "on the warpath" as a phrase that is culturally loaded too. And let's not foget "Indian giver," perhaps the equivalent to being "Jewed down." Ours words do matter. At my children's school I was recently appalled to learn that one of our very own staff was using "death march" as terminology for a long hike on a field trip. Not ok.

Anonymous said...

So happy to have found this blog and this page of terms. I was at first stunned by J. Cline's comment, but after reading other comments I now feel it is an important addition to the page. I particularly like that Anonymous of July 28, 2014 pointed out that many among us are uncomfortable and don't want to be viewed as racists. I know many of us share holiday meals with people representing a rainbow of views on these and other hot topics.

This comments thread in general reminds me to Seek First To Understand And Then To Be Understood -something my Kindergartener is learning this week.

I think all US citizen are lucky. I am grateful every day that we have the freedom to question our freedoms and equality in every way. From those questions may we strive toward perfection and harmony.

Anonymous said...

It's so true that a lot of these phrases are part of not only our literature, but our vocabulary as well. "On the warpath," "Burry the hatchet," "Off the reservation" are 3 of the phrases that I have used myself before. I have not stopped to think about where these sayings have come from or how they might affect someone. I'm reading this article at a great time because I'm teaching the story of thanksgiving in my classroom.

XBadger said...

I would also add using "have a powwow," to mean have a meeting.

The last person who used it on me looked at me strangely when I said, "I can't jingle dress is in storage...."

Sam Jonson said...

Hope the explanation behind "bury the hatchet" gets added soon. Because I know that it came from a custom of the Iroquois Confederacy that was performed in lieu of signing a peace treaty. There's also "take up the hatchet", which is rarer, but which I can easily understand to be a microaggression similar to "go on the warpath".
Wonder why white people used "hatchet" and not "tomahawk" in those phrases? Because in most examples of White Man's Indians, axes are called "tomahawks", a word which comes from an Algonquin word ("hatchet" comes from Old French), and I doubt white writers in the 18th century would have been that much more specific with tribes than they are now.
I mean, that "bury the hatchet" phrase...unlike with "tomahawk" (or even "peace pipe"), it isn't immediately clear to the non-Native that it comes from (white views of) Indians. A writer of Shakespeare's England could have easily said it in reference to the then-current Anglo-Spanish War, with readers thinking it a very original (and probably apt) metaphor. Not so with any of the other phrases on this page.
By the way, that "Happy Hunting Ground" phrase comes from a quote of a Lakota spiritual leader named Many Horses. He may have described the afterlife as "the happy hunting ground where the white man cannot go", but he was, in fact, referring to how the Lakota afterlife was safe from the exploits of the Usonians. And Lakota actually call their afterlife "Wanáǧi Wičhóthi", meaning "Ghost Village" or "Camp of Spirits", not "Happy Hunting Ground".

Debbie Reese said...


I'd love to know your resources for "bury the hatchet" and "Happy Hunting Ground" so I can get on with them!


Erika said...

The connection of "hold (down) the fort" to conflict between Europeans and Native Americans is a little bit thin in terms of actual examples of historical usage: (Worth noting: The popularization of the phrase in the US seems to stem from reporting of an order given by Sherman during the Civil War, but Sherman was also very much involved in the genocide of Native Americans, so it would be reasonable to assume he would have used the phrase then, too, even though we don't have historical record of it.)

All that said, if it hurts, it hurts, and there a million other ways to say "you're in charge while I'm gone," so it's not like it really costs us anything to drop it from the common lexicon.

Peter M said...

Hi Debbie,

I'm wondering about "scalping a ticket" and the related phrases. Came across it in Gansworth's "If I Ever Get Out of Here" and I wondered if I would find it on this list or not. Just a thought!

Joan Lindeman said...

This website is a treasure. I teach graduate classes for teachers on literacy in diverse classrooms, and cultural diversity for aspiring teachers. I greatly appreciate your perspectives, dedication, and incredible resources here on your full website. I found your website as I was looking for a review of The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury. Thank you for your perspective on this book, I will be returning it to the library, providing feedback to the staff, and checking out an alternate text on Native histories and stories. I am particularly interested in Dakota history or Ojibwe, as I live and teach in Minnesota. Thank you Ms. Reese for your commitment and work!

Hdpcgames said...

So happy to have found this blog and this page of terms. I was at first stunned by J. Cline's comment, but after reading other comments I now feel it is an important addition to the page. I particularly like that Anonymous of July 28, 2014 pointed out that many among us are uncomfortable and don't want to be viewed as racists. I know many of us share holiday meals with people representing a rainbow of views on these and other hot topics.

This comments thread in general reminds me to Seek First To Understand And Then To Be Understood -something my Kindergartener is learning this week.

I think all US citizen are lucky. I am grateful every day that we have the freedom to question our freedoms and equality in every way. From those questions may we strive toward perfection and harmony.