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Unlearning the Language of Conquest

Unlearning the Language of Conquest
Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America

Seventeen sages respond to the destruction of Native American populations as evidenced in a variety of arenas--from law and literature to ecology and education.

June 2006
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300 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 figures, 3 tables |

Responding to anti-Indianism in America, the wide-ranging perspectives culled in Unlearning the Language of Conquest present a provocative account of the contemporary hegemony still at work today, whether conscious or unconscious. Four Arrows has gathered a rich collection of voices and topics, including:

  • Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson's "Burning Down the House: Laura Ingalls Wilder and American Colonialism," which probes the mentality of hatred woven within the pages of this iconographic children's literature.
  • Vine Deloria's "Conquest Masquerading as Law," examining the effect of anti-Indian prejudice on decisions in U.S. federal law.
  • David N. Gibb's "The Question of Whitewashing in American History and Social Science," featuring a candid discussion of the spurious relationship between sources of academic funding and the types of research allowed or discouraged.
  • Barbara Alice Mann's "Where Are Your Women? Missing in Action," displaying the exclusion of Native American women in curricula that purport to illuminate the history of Indigenous Peoples.

Bringing to light crucial information and perspectives on an aspect of humanity that pervades not only U.S. history but also current sustainability, sociology, and the ability to craft accurate understandings of the population as a whole, Unlearning the Language of Conquest yields a liberating new lexis for realistic dialogues.

  • Editor's Note on Chief Seathl's Speech
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: Red Road, Red Lake—Red Flag! (by Four Arrows)
  • Introduction (by Four Arrows)
  • 1. Happiness and Indigenous Wisdom in the History of the Americas (by Frank Bracho)
  • 2. Adventures in Denial: Ideological Resistance to the Idea That the Iroquois Helped Shape American Democracy (by Bruce E. Johansen)
  • 3. Burning Down the House: Laura Ingalls Wilder and American Colonialism (by Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson)
  • 4. (Post) Colonial Plainsongs: Toward Native Literary Worldings (by Jodi A. Byrd)
  • 5. Conquest Masquerading as Law (by Vine Deloria Jr.)
  • 6. Traditional Native Justice: Restoration and Balance, Not "Punishment" (by Rudy Al James [ThlauGooYailthThlee-The First and Oldest Raven])
  • 7. Where Are Your Women? Missing in Action (by Barbara Alice Mann)
  • 8. Peaceful versus Warlike Societies in Pre-Columbian America: What Do Archaeology and Anthropology Tell Us? (by James DeMeo)
  • 9. Ecological Evidence of Large-scale Silviculture by California Indians (by Lee Klinger)
  • 10. Preserving the Whole: Principles of Sustainability in Mi'kmaw Forms of Communication (by Trudy Sable)
  • 11. The Language of Conquest and the Loss of the Commons (by Chet Bowers)
  • 12. Overcoming Hegemony in Native Studies Programs (by Devon A. Mihesuah)
  • 13. The Question of Whitewashing in American History and Social Science (by David N. Gibbs)
  • 14. Before Predator Came: A Plea for Expanding First Nations Scholarship as European Shadow Work (by David Gabbard)
  • 15. Roy Rogers, Twin Heroes, and the Christian Doctrine of Exclusive Salvation (by Four Arrows)
  • 16. Western Science and the Loss of Natural Creativity (by Gregory Cajete)
  • 17. On the Very Idea of "A Worldview" and of "Alternative Worldviews" (by Bruce Wilshire)
  • Epilogue (by Four Arrows)
  • Appendix: Essays from The Encyclopedia of American Indian History (by Four Arrows)
    • "The Myth of the Noble Savage"
    • "Indian Education and Social Control"
    • "American Indian Worldviews and Values"
  • Index

Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa), also known as Don Trent Jacobs, is a Professor in Fielding Graduate University’s College of Educational Leadership and Change and an Associate Professor in Northern Arizona University’s Educational Leadership Department. Of Cherokee, Creek, and Scots-Irish ancestry, he holds a doctorate from Boise State University focused on indigenous worldviews. Jacobs was Dean of Education at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is a Lakota Sun Dancer. Recipient of the Martin Springer Institute for Holocaust Studies Moral Courage Award in 2004, Jacobs currently lives in Mexico, where he works as an activist in behalf of the Seri people.


The language of conquest is ultimately a language of deceit. It echoes in the corridors of every American institution, building illusion upon illusion while robbing all of us of our collective Indigenous wisdom. This book is an effort to expose and replace this deception. Although it speaks specifically to the colonization and oppression of America's First Nations and their potential contributions, which have suppressed by the lies of our dominant culture, no single race of people can lay claim to "Indigenous wisdom." It lives deep within the heart of every living creature. Anyone who remains deeply aware of the rhythms of the natural world can re-member it.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of us have lost or are losing this "primal awareness," largely because of the language of conquest. Of those who have not lost it, perhaps none have struggled as hard or have experienced such overwhelming efforts to force them to forget it as have the wisdom keepers of the various American Indian tribes. My friend Rick Two Dogs, an esteemed Oglala holy man and spiritual leader of the Medicine Horse Sun Dance, told me recently that those who remember and live the old ways are like weeds that continue to break through "the concrete streets" of the oppressors. This is why, he said, we must remember the old Lakota ways. "Ehanni Lakol wichohanki Tunkasila kiksuye." Grandfather remembers the old Lakota ways, and so must we.

In any book that praises or attempts to protect Indigenous wisdom, there is always the risk of either playing into or of being accused of participating in the so-called Noble Savage Myth. Our authors are fully aware of the idea and the historical context and political motivations associated with this. However, they know also that many writers have intentionally thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater under the guise of legitimately deconstructing this myth. In this case, the "bathwater" symbolizes the false and largely artificial image of Indigenous People as being totally innocent, physically perfect, always fearless, highly instinctive and without cognitive skills, always wise and peaceful, without emotions, free of social restraints, relegated to the unlivable past, and so on. The "baby" represents authentic worldviews that may indeed offer us vital alternatives to the devastating effects of free-market globalization, greed, war, and ecological ignorance. To save the "baby," our contributing authors will describe aspects of Indigenous worldviews that can have meaning for contemporary lives of all people, while offering formidable rebuttals to the logic of those "researchers" who have concluded that "acknowledging anything positive in the native past is an entirely wrongheaded proposition because no genuine Indian accomplishments have ever really been substantiated."

When people come upon a description here or there of authentic aspects of ancestral Indigenous thinking, many people recognize or remember the truths represented or revealed without the dehumanizing or political agendas associated with the aforementioned myth. See if this is true for you as you read the following assumptions about life that many of the varied and various Indigenous Peoples generally share:

  • The natural world is ultimately more about cooperation than it is about competition.
  • The concept of reciprocity can guide living systems toward balance.
  • Human decisions are best made from the heart as well as the mind.
  • Humans are entwined in and with Nature and the idea of "conquering" or "being in charge" of it rather than honoring the relationship is considered an aberration.
  • Children are sacred and possess inherent value.
  • A Great Mysterious Spirit is within all its creations.
  • Material possessions are less important than generosity and generosity is the highest expression of courage.
  • Diversity gives strength and balance to the world.
  • Resolution of conflict should be about restoring harmony rather than enacting vengeance or punishment.
  • Cognitive dissonance is a human frailty that is best met with humor and understanding followed by corrective resolution, not by rationalization or denial.
  • Women are naturally wise and powerful and are thus vital for social harmony.
  • Prayer and ceremony can help one connect to an invisible world and have value in maintaining health and harmony.
  • Fear is a catalyst for practicing a great virtue such as generosity, patience, fortitude, courage, honesty, or fortitude.
  • Ultimately, the only true authority comes from personal reflection on experience in light of a spiritual awareness that all things are related.
  • Words are powerful entities and should never be misused or used deceptively.

This book is not about such assumptions per se. Rather, it intends to reveal why it is so difficult in these times to understand and embrace them. More specifically, it offers a long overdue scholarly challenge to the educational and ideological hegemony that constitutes what might be thought of as a "fourth wave of killing the Indigenous." The story of this "fourth wave" is similar for Indigenous People around the world, but in America it goes something like this:

European invaders, government soldiers, and civilian opportunists launched the first assault with violence and disease. A genocidal effort to eradicate the people of America's First Nations was based in greed and rationalized by Christian fundamentalism. Politicians, courts, lawyers, the military, and corporations have been behind an ongoing second wave intended to control Indigenous land, water, language, culture, identity, and sovereignty. Academics have led the third wave of the attack with "scholarly" publications that erroneously attack the philosophies, worldviews, and histories of Indigenous People.

The fourth wave is the insidious accumulation of the first three, bringing anti-Indianism into the realm of a dangerous hegemony. It tends to support the first three waves with continuing anti-Indian legal interpretations, classroom instruction and textbooks, literature, films, and social commentary. It represents a new and growing level of erroneous "common sense" that prevents people from realizing the truth, not just about Indigenous People, but about life itself.

The contributions in this text address all four overlapping "waves," but especially focus on the third wave, which relates to more formal aspects of education and information dissemination. It seems that public education itself has become an enemy of truth seeking. For example, it is common for third-year university teacher candidates, even those from First Nations, to be surprised when they learn for the first time that the Christopher Columbus legacy is anything but positive. In the same way that the conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh confuses millions of people about environmental issues like global warming (sufficient, for instance, to result in as much as a 50 percent reduction in contributions to environmental groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists), the Ivory Tower rhetoric and "research" of authors like those mentioned below feed a growing mistrust of "Indian" values throughout society.

Robert Whelan's 1999 book, Wild in the Woods: The Myth of the Peaceful Eco-Savage, is but one example. Whelan, director of a think tank that specializes in pro free-market analysis of environmental issues, is one of a slew of authors whose "scholarly" publications dismiss any positive contributions of the Indigenous way of thinking and revise history in order to support their conclusions. For example, Whelan, after criticizing anti-Columbus rhetoric, concludes, "Indigenous peoples of the earth today have little to teach us about caring for the environment." He says there is "a great deal of wishful thinking behind statements that claim that pre-Columbian native people lived as natural elements of the ecosphere. In fact, they could scarcely be more inaccurate." And: "In fact we now know that the American Indians were forest-burners par excellence. As a result, it was not the forests which impressed the early settlers but the absence of them. To the Indians, trees had no value." Referring to Indigenous Peoples of South America, he further states that it was the "decimation of the Indian population which resulted in the re-appearance of the rainforest!"

Whelan writes well, provides many references, and travels around the world giving speeches that assert that "the green movement has been rightly perceived by many libertarians as a serious threat to both liberty and the market," a comment he made when he presented before The Stockholm Network, a European pro-market think tank. Whelan is the associate director for the Institute of Economic Affairs and is also Britain's leading anti-abortion activist. He recently proposed legislation to "sell Africa" to a multinational organization. His speeches and his writings are nonetheless convincing to many, as when he says in his book, "The American Indians were deadly serious about hunting. There was no sense of British fair play, or giving the quarry a sporting chance. The aim was to kill as much as possible as quickly as possible with the minimum risk to the hunter. There was no concern for conserving future stocks nor for taking only as much as was necessary to meet present needs." Or when he unfavorably compares tribes like the Iroquois with modern paper mill owners: "Conservation would not have occurred to the Indian, lacking the necessary understanding of the physical world."

In a subsection called "Dances with Garbage," he says North American Indigenous People were quick to exploit the peculiar legal status of their reserves, and uses gambling as an example of how Indian people are far from being free from corrupting consumerism. (Of course he ignores that such corruption stems from the shadow of dominant culture and oversimplifies the complexity of the casino phenomenon.) Similarly, he refers to a contract by the Campo Indians of Southern California who "charge millions of dollars for the dumping of waste under conditions which are far less stringent than those which waste processing companies would be obliged to meet anywhere else in the USA" as another example that there is nothing particularly of worth in Indigenous value systems. (And again, this ignores the deeper truths and implications of this absence of environmental regulations on Indian reservations!)

Whelan is but one of a growing number of authors publishing academic and popular books or articles that argue, like C. E. Kay does in "Aboriginal Overkill," a piece published in Human Nature, that Indigenous People historically never had a conservation ethic but rather acted in ways that were the absolute opposite of a conservation strategy. Other authors offer "evidence" alleging that the Indigenous worldview and practices were responsible for such horrors as

  • unrestrained cannibalism among the Hopi and Zuni as described by Dr. Christy Turner in the University of Utah Press release Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest (1999).
  • constant violence, cannibalism, and warfare among the Anasazi and other Puebloans as presented in the University of Utah Press release Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest, by Steven A. Leblanc, whose newest book, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, published by St. Martin's Press (2003), concludes that technology and science have put mankind on the right trajectory for world peace in comparison to the barbaric behaviors of aboriginal people.
  • civilian massacres that prove that the "humanity" of humans is a product of civilization and centralized governments that overcame the horrors of primitive life, as "documented" by Lawrence H. Keeley in War Before Civilization (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • child abuse and other social maladies that were far more pervasive in primitive societies than in ours and prove the superiority of Western culture, put forth by UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton in Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Free Press, 1992).
  • the demise of the buffalo, which according to Shepard Krech in his book, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, was the fault of the Indians themselves (Norton, 2000).
  • savagery reflected in difficult-to-pronounce Indian names like Ota Kte, "which translated as Plenty Kill and evoked a savage past," as stated in Michael L. Cooper's elementary school text, Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way (Clarion, 1999).
  • killing and mutilating women and children for the sake of honor, according to Albert Martin in his book Sitting Bull and His World (Dutton, 2000), a text for grades 5-8 that says, "White people did not bring war to the Great Plains" (39).

Such publications have done and are doing to American Indians what a number of "academic" authors have done in Australia to dismiss the value of the Australian aboriginal worldview. Interestingly, the vice president of the Australian Council of Professional Historians, Kathy Clement, recently edited a collection of articles from academic professors entitled Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History; her book sets out to counter the influence of books like Keith Windschuttle's, which is "part of a range of writing that seeks to counter left-wing influence on people's thinking about the history of Indigenous Australians."

These are examples of one side of the dual-edged sword academics have used against Indigenous People. The other side relates to how they typically ignore them. Several decades ago Francis R. McKenna categorized this policy of dismissal as follows:

Academics generally have little interest in Indians. Scholars generally can be divided into three categories: (a) Those who are overtly racist. An example is John Greenway, a folklorist at the University of Colorado. Greenway posed the question, "Did the United States destroy the American Indian?" and answered, "No but it should have." (b) Those who exclude Indians from academic life. To illustrate, witness the rejection of the application of the American Indian Historical Society for participation in the International Congress of Historical Sciences; and (c) those who neglect to include the Indian in scholarly presentations. For example, the revisionist historian, Colin Greer, in an otherwise excellent collection of works of ethnicity in America, makes no mention of American Indians.

These examples are, of course, more or less obvious and intentional, but such work filters down into the system to support the a more subtle hegemony, one that the authors expose in this book. This "filtered" material is woven into the fabric of everyday communication from those who themselves have become "brainwashed" (in a sense) from years of learning that began in elementary school and pervades most media in the United States. Consider a recent special issue of U.S. News and World Report entitled "Defining America: Why the U.S. is Unique." Taking up the economic expansion of "the most innovative and wealthy society the world has ever seen," the author of an article entitled "A Nation on the Make" states, "A final element—place—provided both the resources to jump-start the transformation and the room for it to grow. The largely empty continent offered industrious new Americans land, timber, water and food."

Empty continent? Scholars have estimated that the number of people living in North America before sustained contact with Europeans was 20 to 60 million. Demographics historian Henry F. Dobyns estimates that 120 million people occupied the lands. The magazine's reference to a "largely empty continent" reflects how the writer was both influenced by and influences the kind of hegemony this book reveals.

Thus, the "fourth wave of killing the Indigenous" builds on the first three waves, pulling in decades of anti-"Indian" literature, films, and social commentary. Sometimes appearing as a smothering maelstrom, other times as an invisible poison, it ultimately emerges as a "commonsense" view of the world that automatically disregards truth. It represents the kind of hegemony that prevents people from realizing that social and environmental injustice are not a natural by-product of human nature; that the current form of global capitalism is not the only economic system available to humanity; or that living Indigenous cultures possess a measure of wisdom that may be vital for all of our futures.

This fourth wave is in reality an insidious form of cultural genocide against Indigenous People that tends to support

  • ongoing ignoring of Indigenous People's legal rights and the legitimate relationship between the various First Nations and the federal government.
  • legislation that attempts to abrogate Indian treaties or to deny federal support.
  • efforts of white citizens to launch anti-Indian campaigns in connection with acquiring coal, timber, gas, fishing, and other land-use rights.
  • suppression of Indigenous People's religious freedoms, as when museums display ancestral bones or religious objects, or when sacred medicine bundles are confiscated or destroyed by U.S. Customs officials or peyote ceremonies are disallowed. (I myself recently had my Sun Dance rope taken away from me at the Phoenix airport for fear I might "tie someone up with it.")
  • the ignoring of cultural relevance in education as exemplified in implementation of laws like the No Child Left Behind Act.
  • expropriation and exploitation of reservation lands, which ultimately pollutes, poisons, or extracts vital resources while robbing Indigenous People of fair compensation or opportunities to litigate for environmental restoration.

These items represent just the tip of the iceberg. Volumes would be required to itemize attacks on American Indians and the deceptive language of conquest that supports these attacks. Moreover, new items emerge almost daily, from new discoveries of corruption against tribes to the deleterious effects of federal education laws on Indian children. Consider for example the use of Indian lands for military experiments. Gregory Hooks, chair of Washington State University's Department of Sociology, and Chad L. Smith, a professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, recently concluded in "The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans" that dangerous military sites are disproportionately situated on American Indian lands, systematically exposing American Indians to extremely toxic and dangerous weapons and chemicals. So in addition to being pushed off millions of acres of their homelands to make way for weapons testing sites, American Indians remain at risk from unexploded bombs, land mines, nerve gases, and toxic materials, including nuclear waste.

In noting and remembering such injustices against Indigenous People, the reader should also realize that the loss of Indigenous perspective is a loss to all people. As noted earlier, Indigenous worldviews, as varied as they are, have common associations that are significantly different from those operating in the dominant cultures of the so-called Western world. For example, assumptions about children, authority, community, language, deception, art, music, justice, competition, animals, religion, land, and money are often polar opposites from those that guide the typical American citizen's life and typical U.S. government policies. Although these assumptions are not exclusive to American Indian cultural paradigms and can be found in alternative philosophies in all societies, this book asserts that the wisdom of traditional American "Indians" is an essential ingredient for those wishing to mitigate the dominant American influence on domestic and world systems. Moreover, many First Nations citizens still maintain these values today and can help the process of transforming American culture.

Our goal is thus a lofty one. We hope to replace anti-Indigenous hegemony with understanding that is both truthful and constructive. We do not mean to say that Indigenous worldviews are always better ways for knowing reality than those that pervade Western culture. No worldview is epistemologically privileged in the sense that it is the only absolutely truth and all others are false. The process of understanding nature, human nature, and the relationship between the two is an evolving one in many ways. Yet, as J. Baird Callicott says in his validation of traditional and Indigenous intellectual achievements,

The Indigenous worldviews around the globe can contribute a fund of symbols, images, metaphors, similes, analogies, stories and myths to advance the process of articulating the new postmodern scientific worldview. Thus the contemporary custodians of traditional and indigenous non-Western systems of ideas can be co-creators of a new master narrative for the rainbow race of the global village. They have a vital role to play . . . indigenous environmental ethics may complement a post-modern evolutionary-ecological/environmental ethic as well as vice versa. We may anticipate a global intellectual dialogue, synthesis, and amalgamation to emerge, rather than an era of Western philosophical hegemony, or—just as bad—an era of intellectual balkanization, bickering, intolerance and ethnic cleansing. (Emphasis mine)

Popular authors from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Diane Ravitch continue to tell us that American society and schools should forget about soothing the pain of dispossessed groups of Indigenous People, that attempting to do so threatens the solidarity of our nation. We assert the opposite is true. It may be that ignoring the Indigenous wisdom upon which the United States Constitution was largely founded is what has led our great country into ever-increasing violence, chaos, inequity, and ecological devastation. The problem, although complex, has much to do with a calculated commitment to a very singular notion of a Eurocentric worldview, a worldview supported by manipulated hegemony that serves, not a democracy, but a plutocracy.

Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) concluded his book, The Soul of the Indian, originally published in 1911, with these words:

Such are the beliefs in which I was reared—the secret ideals which have nourished in the American Indian a unique character among the peoples of the earth. Its simplicity, its reverence, its bravery and uprightness must be left to make their own appeal to the American of today, who is the inheritor of our homes, our names, and our traditions. Since there is nothing left us but remembrance, at least let that remembrance be just!"

Although more optimistic about the future of First Nations' people perhaps than was Ohiyesa in 1911, our authors nonetheless speak for this just remembrance while at the same time making the appeal for the way of seeing and being in the world about which he speaks, challenging the hegemony of those who misrepresent it along the way. Many of the noted contributing authors in this volume are of First Nations blood or are enrolled tribal members. Others have long focused their research on an authentic understanding of Indigenous history, philosophy, and contemporary realities facing Indigenous People, or at least have studied those aspects of colonialization that continue to oppress Indigenous consciousness in all of its forms.


“Outstanding scholarship. . . . Giant first steps towards the goal of providing a truthful and constructive understanding of indigenous worldviews.”
Daniel R. Wildcat, Professor of Sociology and American Indian Studies, Haskell Indian Nations University


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