An Update on English nomenclature for Indigenous people

Dear Comrades,

I write in the language of the church that came to indoctrinate my ancestors and separate us from our creator by way of making us believe our connection to the divine was somehow errant to begin with; generally speaking, I don’t have an opinion on English words to describe us.

When I was growing up, we allowed ourselves to be called “Sioux” because it was easier than trying to teach non-Lakota people how to properly address us and to take on their guilt. After a time, we came to a capacity to be able to teach non-Lakota people about us, whether by pride, reclamation, or revitalization, however it came to us, we did it.

The term “tribe” is one that I have the least feelings about. It’s an English word first recorded in 1200 in Middle English, derived from the Old French, “tribu,” which itself was derived from the Latin “tribus” meaning any three divisions of Roman people. It is of the oldest colonizer and generally of little interest to me.

Added to this, the fact that our Jewish comrades have long been affiliated with the concept of tribes as they have had to navigate Christian-dominated spaces. When I had my first conversation with a Jewish, Indigenous ally from the American Indian Movement days, he reminded me that his people used to ask one another if new people were MOTs (“Member of the Tribe”).

But white supremacy is like mercury through one’s fingers, it will slip through wherever it can. If we give non-Indigenous folks a pass whenever they use phrases like “tribe” to describe their “chosen family” (also, a good phrase that’s open for use from the queer community), then it plants itself deeply within our communities to give itself power. This is evidenced by the fact that non-Indigenous people have openly and brazenly used the words “spirit animal” to talk about their charms and “powwow” to talk about their meetings right in front of me with impunity.

With all the stories now being told about this country, both its de jure and de facto foundations in colonization, genocide, slaveholding, Christian dominion, I’ve come to appreciate the dogged determination in disrupting and redirecting narratives whenever the opportunities arise.

Say “charm,” “guide,” or “petronus” when you mean a spiritual or otherworldly avatar or guide; say “gathering,” “meeting,” when you mean a summit of people for an intentional purpose; and say “friends,” “(chosen) family,” or my personal, ominous favorite, “cabal” when you mean a collection of people important to you.

Yours in solidarity so long as the language of the colonizer will allow,


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