Politically Correct Words Suck

(Author’s note on 6/11/2017: Given the current political climate, I felt it important to clarify something on this post. Political Correctness can mean wildly different things to different people. Some think all things nice are PC and all things bad are not PC. Others think being anti-PC gives them an excuse to spout vile ideas. Neither of these are the real definition of what PC actually is.

For the purpose of this article, I’m talking purely about the original definition of what PC is: changing language to political speech which softens the meaning of our words.)

Words shape thought

That’s a line from the video I’m going to link at the bottom of this post. It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about how the way we think is influenced by the words we use ever since I got into teaching language.

For example, in conversational Korean, it’s common to use the possessive pronoun “our” in place of “my,” “his,” “her,” and so on. I wouldn’t say, “This is my bike.” I would say “This is our bike.” After knowing that, isn’t it also curious how Korean culture is very communal. Americans are individualistic, but there’s a great sense of “we” in Korea. And why wouldn’t there be if you grew up calling everything “ours.”

Just think of what else the words we use could train our brains to see.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Here’s why this is relevant for you. Americans are obsessed with being politically correct these days. The intention is to be polite, but the effect is that we are making our language weak.

Remember, words shape thought.

I know I’m not the first one to talk about this. Everyone is talking about it. The nation is dividing into teams about politically correct speech. But I recently changed teams and I did so because I’m a writer, reader, and English language teacher. My world is made of words. While I may not be the first to talk about political correctness, I can explain why it’s a problem.

Politically correct speech is formal language. It pushes to change an individual’s way of speaking, flaws and all, into an orthodox vocabulary that makes people comfortable because it pushes the word further away from its actual meaning. The poor become economically disadvantaged. Civilian casualties become collateral damage

Scroll to page three of this link for more examples from the “Bias-Free Language Guide” which the University of New Hampshire published.

(Update: Note that the president of UNH does not condone nor enforce the Bias-Free Language Guide. Still, it does a damn good job of showing the kind of political correct language that’s starting to run out of control.)

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Formal language isn’t bad. We just have to understand that there’s a time and place for formal language. But there’s also a time and place when it certainly should not be used.

A lot of languages have formal structures built into them. In Spanish, when you talk to a friend you say “tu” but when you talk to an authority you say “usted.” In Korean, when you talk to a friend, you end the verb with “-ayo,” but when you talk to an older person you end the verb with “-imnida.”

English doesn’t have these structures. Instead, we add extra words to make something sound more formal. At a restaurant, you say, “I would like to have a water, please.” But with a friend, you say, “Yo, get me a water.”

You speak formally to authority figures, elders, and strangers. This is the place for formal language. However, the die-hard politically correct crowd is pushing our whole language to become formal by making it vague and wordy.

What about the informal? Where is its place? With friends and family, right? This is what I learned when I studied Spanish and when I learned to teach English. “You speak informally with your loved ones.”

Let’s apply this and see if it checks out. Imagine yourself in this scenario. You’re walking down the street on Saturday afternoon. The sun is out and you’ve got nowhere you gotta be. You’re about to cross paths with a stranger walking in the opposite direction, so you give the passerby a friendly nod. The passerby gives you the finger and a sucker punch. There’s a million things you could say, but for this scenario let’s limit it to two options:

  1. “Pardon me, stranger, but might I inquire into the ulterior intentions which may be behind this action which has just been undertaken by yourself?”
  2. “Hey bozo, what the fuck?”

I bet you’d go with the latter. But wait, isn’t that informal language? Do you love this sucker punching stranger?

You see, we have the wrong idea about formal and informal language. Formal language isn’t a sign of respect, it’s a sign of distance. Informal language isn’t a sign of love, it’s a sign of closeness. Closeness to the actual meaning we want to express. Informal is the real language.

This is a point I make often when I’m teaching English. A lot of intermediate level English speakers want to use big, fancy words and long, complex sentences. It’s impossible to understand. It isn’t wrong, it’s just bland. Vague. Lifeless. I spend a lot of time teaching students to use language that is simple and clear. To use the informal.

They respond, “What if you’re at a job interview? I tell them that every situation has a range of acceptable formality. But whatever the range is, you should strive to speak and write at the lowest number on that range. This is where you find words with power.

I recently tried to make this point with an adult student I’m tutoring here. I showed him this example from the book “On Writing Well,” which is one of two great books in the American writer’s scripture. The author, William Zinsser, gives two examples of language from a memo Franklin Roosevelt sent in WW2. The first is formal and lifeless. The second is informal, simple, and vibrant.

He (Franklin Roosevelt) tried to convert into English his own government’s memos, such as this blackout order of 1942:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Imagine that you’ve received this is a memo directly from the president. It’s wartime. It requires immediate action; American lives depend on it. But are you even sure of what to do? Don’t mess this up for us all. Are you one hundred percent sure what the memo wants you to do?

Luckily, Zinsser continues to show how Franklin Roosevelt translated this memo:

Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.

Simple. Clear. Informal. This is good language.

Politicians and lawyers speak in drawn out, formal language. This makes us think that smart people speak  with formal language, which is wrong. People speak formally when they are talking with someone they want to keep at a distance. Any other time a person speaks formally, it’s because they’re trying to cover their ass by obscuring their words so much that you can’t pin any responsibility on them.

Just because you use a polite word, it does not mean you’re thinking polite things. Defend language that is descriptive and clear. These words have personality and power.

The modern age of political correctness does not make our society nicer. It only makes it more formal. It puts distance between our words and reality, blurring our vision of what reality is and muting our voice when we want to talk about it. If people say offensive things, we need to focus on making reality a better place, not swapping in formal words to hide reality under the rug.

As we saw, formal language confuses a message about simply covering the windows. This is the language we’re using to end racism, poverty, hunger, global conflicts, and so on? Impossible.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Before the angry hordes of the internet come storming at my gate, let me be clear. I’m promoting directness. But I’m not promoting insensitivity. Our obsession with politeness started with good intentions, but then got infected with cowards who want to be shielded from the result of their own beliefs.

Where do we draw the line between what’s direct and what’s offensive? Here’s the rule. The best phrase is the most descriptive and accurate. This is how we keep our language honest.

For example, the word “fat” is just descriptive. There’s a reason it’s the word we use among ourselves, away from the public. You know you do. The word is accurate. “Obese” is a medical condition and “over-weight” doesn’t necessarily mean fat. Fat is just fat. There’s only one possible thing it could be and there’s only one possible word to describe it. That’s a good word.

However, a friend recently asked me why “Eskimo” is considered offensive. That’s because it’s not accurate. “Eskimo,” like so many names we use today for Native tribes, is the word their enemy tribes called them. “Inuit” is the word the people call themselves. “Inuit” is more accurate, and therefore is the better word.

Does that mean if the manager of my local pizza shop says the word “Eskimo” in a conversation, we should protest until he resigns? Hell no. He has the right to be ignorant about some things. It does not make him racist against Inuit people just because he used a word. But even if he did hate Inuit people, I don’t need my pizza guy to agree with everything I believe. I need him to make good pizza.

These obsessive social justice warriors flying their banners of aggressive political correctness are moving us towards a society where people are scared to express opinions which step outside of the popular mood.

For decades, science fiction has warned us about the dangers of government removing our free speech through censorship. But they missed it. These days, we censor ourselves.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

I had an activity I did with advanced English classes to drive this point home. I’d have them write famous quotes on one side of the board. Then we’d use the other side to suck the life out of the quotes by using the reverse of all the good language rules we’d learned.

For example, one class took “I have a dream,” and changed it to “A subliminally unconscious experience has been participated in during the night by me.” One moves the audience to dream with you. The other moves the audience to sleep.

Listen: words shape thought, so use them well.

A Thought of My Own.

This post has a reader participation activity at the end. Just like Blue’s Clues!

I was on a bus the other day. I saw a seven year old girl looking up at the adults, the way kids do. Quiet, observing, not yet self-aware, taking in clues about what life is like and how people are supposed to be. Kids accept it because they don’t have any other experience. Do you remember doing this?

I did a lot of that as a kid because I was the youngest of my whole extended family. I looked up and saw adults in lively conversation about things I didn’t understand. I saw strangers acknowledge strangers. I saw people look out windows and think their own thoughts. So I did too.

What do you think the little girl on the bus saw? I followed her eyes. 100% of the adults were looking at their phones. My eyes looked down in shame, but hers remained wide open. Absorbing.

Our smartphone obsession is one of the defining conversations of our generation. There have been so many viral cartoons and articles and videos about this topic, so why add my voice to the noise? I can’t even fit my thoughts into a cute rhyme.

The thing is, I think smartphones are also good. I know a lot of people who complain about them, but I don’t know anyone who stopped using them. Myself included. Right now, my phone is sitting in front of the keyboard as I type.

But it wasn’t that long ago when things weren’t like this. Back in the 90s, when you were at a place and it was boring, you had to make it interesting. When you took a crap, you just stared at the door in front of you and crapped.

My whole philosophy on smartphones changed when I started teaching 18-24 year olds at an English language school in California. I went into the school with high hopes for the future of humanity and our relationship with technology. I left wishing I could go back in time to find the first person who invented fire and slap it out of his hand.

The school had just a few basic classroom rules that it expected students to follow. Keep the class clean. Only speak English in classes. Don’t use your phone.

At the start, I wanted to be the cool teacher, the renegade, the Captain my Captain who ripped up rulebooks but repaired souls. But I mean, keeping the classroom clean is an understandable rule. I decided I wouldn’t rip that one out.

As time went on, I realized it actually is a problem for students to speak languages other than English. The reason they come to the US to study English is because they want to be surrounded by the language. The goal is to be able to think in English so you don’t need to translate. To do this, people have to stop explaining things to them in their native language. Otherwise, I’m just wasting my students’ money. So I started following that rule too.

It took me longer to understand why smartphones are bad for class, but I finally came to agree with that rule too. The first reason is that you’re not in the moment when you’re on your phone. This is the main one people complain about with phones. You’re out with friends and instead of talking to the people, you’re updating your social media status which those same people at the table will see later that night. This problem is even more pronounced in a classroom when you have to explain directions for the third time in a row because someone was sending a snapchat of his shoelaces.

But as the years went on and I observed hundreds of students come and go from all over the world, I started to see another and more meaningful problem. These kids are never bored. And boredom is valuable. Critically valuable. I never realized that until this device came along that gobbled up all our boredom.

Listen.

When I was a kid, my mom would tell me I couldn’t watch TV or play video games. I told her I was bored and she told me to figure it out. Sometimes that meant playing video games with no volume so she didn’t know. But just sometimes, it meant walking around the house until something caught my eye. Like the bookshelf.

I’d pull out random books and look through them. I’d read through encyclopedias just for fun. I started to realize that I liked books, so I wrote one. I folded sheets of white paper together, stapled the fold, and wrote a book about talking animals that did kung fu.

I learned that I like writing. I began keeping a journal. Writing became like a good friend that took my feelings and processed them into thoughts I could understand.

In short, I discovered my identity because I was bored. I had nothing to do, so I made something to do. That doesn’t happen anymore because the smartphone is the ultimate boredom killing device. Any spare time you have at any point in the day can be entertained. Social media and technology fills all of your time, leaving no time to fill yourself.

Smartphones aren’t bad, which is why people complain about them but keep using them. They’re amazingly useful things. What’s bad is how we use them. We need to be aggressive about having our own thoughts. We need to learn how to use them and not be used up by them.

It’s a matter of living life actively, rather than passively. Are you going to make your own thoughts and make your own fun, or have your thoughts and fun handed to you. One produces interesting people. The other produces robots, pre-programmed by one-line memes.

At that school in California, I did a lot of student-led activities. The best way to learn a language isn’t to study grammar and vocab. The best way is to practice it. So I created activities for my students to speak, write, and create. Now this may be a stretch, but I swear to god I could handpick which of my students were and weren’t addicted to their phones based on their performance in these activities.

The un-addicted students had the ability to put energy into an activity to make it fun. The addicted students only had experience being entertained, not entertaining. So they were boring.

By the way, the worst thing you can do in life is be boring. I remember the students I enjoyed, of course. I also remember the students that I fought with. But who would want to be one of the students I forgot?

So let’s do a practice in active thinking. Here’s the reader participation bit.

Do you remember as a kid on Saturday afternoon when you had finished your chores, you could just stare at the ceiling and think? No one else’s thoughts, all your own creation. No direction to the thought, just following where the mind goes.

I can’t remember the last time I did this. We’re now so connected to TV and music and internet shoving so many thoughts into our minds, we don’t get the chance to make our own. Our minds don’t wander and create now, they just follow the next link.

I don’t want to follow a link. I want to have my own thoughts. So after the last word of this post, turn your monitor off. Turn off the TV and the music. Leave it all off for just a few minutes and I guarantee you’ll feel it. The mind will start to get bored.

You’ll want to ease the boredom, but don’t cheat yourself out of this valuable experience. Endure it. Don’t get up to fill the boredom, the mind itself will get up and move about. Create. That’s you. Not the next status, the next text, the next link. You are that wandering mind is you, so nurture it.

Let’s do it together. Turn off this monitor, silence the phone, and think.

War on Christianity. Native Americans. The Bible.

I got the idea for this post while reading Great Speeches by Native Americans. I think it’s a good idea and it’s important to me, but posting this scares me. This blog is for friends and family, most of whom are Christian. But that’s exactly why I decided to do it. Writing this challenged me, and hopefully reading it will challenge you. Nothing is more refreshing than being challenged.

Here’s the plan. I’m going to use the Bible and excerpts from Native American speeches to prove that the USA never was a Christian nation, and therefore prove that there is no War on Christianity in this country. How’s that for a hook?

I was Christian for the first twenty years of my life. And not just a Sunday Christian. My faith defined my life. Pages fell out of my Bible because I studied it so much. Hell, I even prayed every night for a week before my first time asking a girl out. I had a crisis of faith when she said “no.”

I dropped Christianity in my second  year of University. It was a slow process that lasted years. Every Christian has a side that doubts and a side that believes. I decided that the side which doubts was more honest. Many of my friends and family decided the side which believes is more honest. I have no problem with that. We’re all just blind men trying to walk towards the light.

That’s why I think it’s okay to write this post. I’m not attacking anyone’s faith. I’m attacking the idea of War on Christianity in America. It’s a false idea which hurts this country because it divides us. Nothing creates an “us vs. them” mentality more than the word “war.”

I used to believed in the war on Christianity, back in my Christian days. Many Christians still believe it. They believe secular people are trying to chip away at Christian rights until the religion is reduced to a pile of pebbles. When people tried to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, I saw that as evidence for the War on Christianity.

Of course, we don’t say “under Vishnu,” and I didn’t think there was War on Hinduism. The difference is that I believed the USA was founded as a Christian nation by god fearing men and women. I also believed that our early greatness was at least partially due to God favoring us due to our faith. As our nation slowly fell out of faith, God’s favor lessened and so did our greatness.

I know many other Christians believe this too. I lived all over the country when I was young, and churches in every part of the nation preach it. Just check out the customer review section of this book.

Now I’m on the outside looking in. There’s no pastor telling me the inspired truth. There’s no congregation surrounding me, reaffirming my beliefs. I’m just one man looking around. Here’s what I see.

To determine if the USA ever was a Christian nation, we first need to determine what a Christian is. The church taught me how to do this at a young age. You see, Christians don’t accept that someone’s faith is real just because they say it is. They know that there are many people who are only Christian by name. I want to take that same logic and extend it to the past

I obsessed over the genuineness of my faith. It’s not like you hear an audible voice when your faith becomes real. God doesn’t hand you a plaque that says “You’ve done it” and put a cross necklace on you. The song “World’s Apart” became a prayer to me. I have journals from high school praying for God to take everything from me if I could just know that my faith was true.

Ten year later, I finally have my answer and the only thing he took from me was my youth.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how to perfectly know if someone is a Christian. But Jesus does tell us how to know if someone is not a Christian. Matthew 7:15-18:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

That’s clear. Good people bear good fruit, whether they’re Christian or not. Bad people bear bad fruit. They’re so not Christ-like that Jesus actually calls them “false prophets.” Which, by the way, is also how the Bible describes the anti-Christ’s right hand man.

Next, we need to know what the Bible defines as “good fruit.” Peter tells us in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I can still cite these by heart. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We sang songs about them in chapel services. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I memorized this verse in high school and constantly measured it against my actions. I wanted to know if I bore good fruit.

Memorization is just repetition. There’s no secret to it. If you put in the time, you get results. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Try to keep those in mind.

Let’s look at some original texts from early America. We’re going to pick fruit and you can judge if it’s good.

You can’t get a much earlier American text than this speech from Chief Powhatan in 1609. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the father of Pocahontas. He was the Chief of the native confederacy which gave the original pilgrims permission to settle in Jamestown. Two years after the pilgrims settled in Jamestown, Captain Smith and Chief Powhatan had a disagreement during negotiations. Captain Smith began threatening. This is how the Chief responded:

Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food? What can you get by war?

How did the offer of friendship work out? I think you know the rest of the story.

I’ve often heard people justify America’s expansion into Native territory by saying the Natives were a weaker force and the natural order of things is for stronger groups to overcome weaker groups. I can dispel both arguments with the next quote.

This is an excerpt from Tecumseh’s speech in 1811. He rode through the south, trying to unite the tribes to defend themselves against American advancement. He says:

Brothers– When the white man first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our father commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn. -Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents; when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death.

There was a time when the Natives were stronger and more numerous. In the 16th century, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano described the east coast of North America as “densely populated.” They did not wipe out the settlers. In fact, they offered them food and taught them how to survive in this land.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Another inaccuracy many of us believe is that Native land was taken by force. While some of the land certainly was taken by force, much of it–perhaps even a majority–was taken by trade and treaty. This next speech is the same one I quoted in my previous post. In this excerpt, Chief Joseph asks the US government to return his land to him. He says the government bought it illegally.

Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.” I say to him, “No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.” Then he goes to my neighbor, and says to him: “Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.” My neighbor answers, “Pay me money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.” The white man returns to me, and says “Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.” If we sold our lands to the Government, this is the way they were bought.

A recurring theme through the speeches is that the Natives were pushed off their land by cheating and lies. Our declaration of independence states that all men are created equal, yet early Americans never treated the Natives as such. Sitting Bull himself laments this in his speech here:

What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the whites ever made with us red men have they kept? Not one. 

And then there are the missionaries and the Christian schools set up to “civilize” the Natives.  Sagoyewatha was a chief among the Iroquois Confederacy. He addresses this cultural assimilation in his speech from 1805, titled “You have got our country, but you are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us:”

Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you, we only want to enjoy our own.

Brother, we have been told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again what you have said.

Within fifteen years, the Iroquois were forced off their land. Sagoyewatha, needless to say, declined the missionary’s offer.

These were not isolated incidences of cruelty from a few settlers. This was centuries of asphyxiation on the lifeline of the natives, from citizens up to the congress and senate. And, of course, all this time slavery was rampant in the deeply religious south.

What fruit did we find? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? No. We find hate, aggression, greed, violence, deceitfulness, selfishness, and indifference to human suffering. Is this what you want us to believe a Christian nation looks like?

Look, I love my country and I’m proud to be American. But if you want to have any claim to truth, you have to look and be honest about what you see. You have to know your own faults if you want to improve. If you accept that there are false Christians today, then it’s not a stretch to believe the same was true four hundred years ago. Especially in a time when being religious was basically the only choice.

There is no war on Christianity in the USA. Sure, there are some wackos who think all Christians are bad people. But both secular and Christian people agree that they’re wacko. No one wants to dictate how Christians live as long as Christians don’t dictate how the rest of Americans live.

Think of how liberating it would be to look forward instead of behind you. Instead of striving for this mirage of a god fearing nation in the past, focus on making America something we can be proud of today.

We need to stop dividing ourselves over things that don’t matter because there are people right now who need our united attention. Share when you have plenty. Take care of the poor. Protect the weak. Help the helpless. Bear good fruit.

I got something to say about the war on white male authors.

 

A few months ago I was reading through an online forum when I saw a conversation about this article. It’s not necessary that you read through it, it’s an argument I’m sure you’ve heard before. I’ll summarize it for you.

Dana Dusbiber, a high school English teacher in Sacramento, argues that middle schools and high schools should cut Shakespeare out of the curriculum to make room for literature and mythology from more diverse backgrounds. She says Shakespeare is an old white guy in “a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago.” And that canon is full of other old white guys.

The posts in the forums weren’t focused on the merits of Shakespeare in the English literary canon. They were arguing about the much bigger idea that media and academia are biased against white men. This is the part of the argument that I expect you’ve heard before. It comes up as people changing #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter. It comes up as people asking “Why is Africa for Africans, Asia for Asians, but white countries are for everyone?” It comes up as people worrying about white people becoming a minority in the USA.

Since The Civil Rights Movement, there’s been a permeating fear in some white American cultures that they’re under siege and losing the battle. I don’t know enough to say something worthwhile about #alllivesmatter or any of those other things. But because this White-Shrinkage fear has come to literature, now I’ve got something to say.

To be clear from the beginning, I don’t agree that we should completely eliminate Shakespeare studies. His influence is inescapable in English literature. What I’m doing here is explaining why literature classes are becoming more diverse.

First, consider why people read. There are many academic benefits students get from studying literature. There’s a reason it’s a core-class, even if its results aren’t as tangible as math and science. But what’s interesting is that many of us continue reading literature even after graduation. I don’t think any of my friends have picked up a math book, but many have gotten back into reading. What do we get from it?

Literature develops empathy. This is the primary harvest we reap from books. In reading, you are quiet and you listen. You listen as someone opens their mind to you with every story, every word choice, every focused detail. You’re not allowed to interrupt them. It’s as close as you can get to jumping into the mind of another person.

You see, this isn’t about about white-shaming. The focus isn’t on minimizing white, male authors. It’s about showing the true depth of humanity by maximizing representation. And no, this is not hurting white men. Trust me, white men are very much not under-represented. We’re doing fine.

Here’s a specific example of how it works. This example is about Native Americans, but you can extrapolate it onto women, other ethnicities, other religions, or whoever else. Four years ago, I became obsessed with learning about pre-European influence Native American culture.

It started because I got five minutes into Pocahontas–right around to when she’s dashing through a lush paradise and singing to a raccoon–and I thought, “These guys are people, right? There’s no damn way it was like this.” Granted, that’s a Disney movie. But we do have this idea of Native Americans living in a sparsely populated natural paradise, at complete  peace with man and beast. And this is a new idea. Fifty or so years ago, we had the idea that they were all sub-human savages. Both of these theories are empty of humanity.

So I did some research. It was a simple query. I wanted to know what life was like in the Americas before European influence. Here is a summary of what I learned after a night of intense research: Jack shit.

There is an embarrassing lack of research. It’s as if historians thought the continents were in a history-less stasis, waiting to be unfrozen by the arrival of Europeans. And then POOF! History began. There could be entire university classes about each Roman emperor, but you’d struggle to put together a class on the entire Aztec empire before the Spanish showed up. And the Aztecs even had a culture of writing and literature! We can learn about every facet of daily life in ancient Greece almost three thousand years ago, but what about the about the daily lives of the people who helped us found our young nation and are buried under our feet? 

I dug deep and found a few academic books that could help me. The only quality ones I could find were fairly recent. It’s as if we’ve suddenly realized the Natives have stories too.

I dug deeper and read journals of early American settlers. I read accounts of white settlers who were captured and lived among the Natives.

This was all pretty cool, but I still felt like my understanding was foggy. There was a block between me and my intended study subject. It was a white guy (me) reading a white person (the author) telling the story of Native people. I was learning facts about Natives, but not understanding Natives.

A few months ago, I found a book of Native American speeches. It removed the block. Now it’s a white guy (me) reading the words of a Native American person. I’m not just learning facts, I’m connecting with them. They are explaining how life feels to them and I am able to say, “Yes, I know that feeling too.” 

Again, you can take this same idea and apply it to any other group of people. This is the work academia is trying to do. It is not about white-shaming, it is about adapting to globalization. It’s about expanding our idea of humanity to actually include all of humanity. It doesn’t matter how many history books you’ve read, you do not understand someone’s story until they tell it to you. In their own words. 

I’ll leave you with this quote from Chief Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt in 1879. This is just the first paragraph of the speech. You can see the full text here.



My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth.