In 1998, when Michael Jordan was about to play what was supposed to be his last NBA game — the Chicago Bulls vs. the Utah Jazz — I was beyond excited. I had my beer in the fridge and my game snacks all ready. My phone was unplugged (yes it was the era of landlines) and I had told all my friends and work not to disturb me. I was bubbling with excitement as the opening tip-off took place. Moments later, Dennis Rodman took to the court and the NBC announcer described him as a great player, but said that you never knew whether Rodman was “on or off the reservation.”
In case you don’t know what that phrase means, here is a quick and dirty history lesson. Both in Canada and the United States, Indigenous people were forced onto tracts of land called reservations. This is common knowledge. What may not be as well known is that, back in the day, Indigenous people needed permission from the Indian Agent (a government official assigned to each reserve here in Canada) to leave the reservation. When a native person was “off the reservation” without permission, punishment could be very harsh. In the United States, that punishment could even include hanging.
In current times, “off the reservation” is used when referring to entering hostile territory without orders (in military or political terms) or, more colloquially, to deviate from the norm. You will often hear it used to describe someone who is acting crazy or out of control.
Hearing this term used on a major television network in the middle of a significant sporting event made me feel as though all our hard-won victories as Indigenous people didn’t count. It is hard to put into words, but for me it feels like no matter how many court cases we win, we will still be second-class citizens. At the time I was in my second year of law school, and studying cases that represented Indigenous rights. The irony didn’t escape me. I typed out a furious email to NBC and never heard back.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” So goes the old adage many of us were told by our well-meaning parents. For me, it ranks up there with Santa Clause and the tooth fairy in terms of epic lies told to me in the spirit of love. The reality is that words do hurt. Which is why, as a society, we remove hurtful words from our vernacular as we evolve. In the common discourse of polite society, I am fairly safe from derogatory references to my sexual orientation, my physical challenges or my gender. When it comes to being Indigenous, however, people continue to use phrases that cut me to the bone.
Even if a person doesn’t know the origins of “off the reservation,” it should be pretty easy to deduce that it pertains to Indigenous people and the long history of both Canadian and U.S. governments segregating and controlling us.
Yet the phrase continues to be bantered around. I’ve heard it on the popular TV series Bones—twice. I was also shocked to hear Yvette Nicole Brown, a very smart comedian and actor who also happens to be African-American, casually drop the phrase recently on The Talking Dead, a talk show that discusses the popular series The Walking Dead. I’m a fan, so when I tweeted her about it, I tried to make it a learning moment. I didn’t hear back.
Even in the new world of podcasting, the phrase continues to be used. While listening to Slate’s podcast “Hit Parade,” Chris Molanphy was articulating a fascinating story of how the song “Red Red Wine” became a hit, and there it was: He referred to a radio station DJ “going off the reservation” by playing a song that was neither current nor a hit.
How does this happen in an age when people are more educated and more careful than ever about the words they use? Do they just not know? Do they simply not agree that it’s offensive? Or is it like headdresses at music festivals? No matter how many Indigenous people express their hurt at the practice, some festival-goers simply choose to wear the headdresses anyway, and many festivals continue to sell them.
Most Canadians know better than to use the “n” word but it seems that in the realm of Indigenous people, there is still much to be learned. As polite Canadian conversation continues to use terms like, “lowest on the totem pole,” let’s have a “pow wow” and “off the reservation,” Indigenous communities continue to fight for potable water and basic human rights.
Perhaps this proves Maya Angelou’s sage advice about the power of words. She said that words were real, that they get on our clothes and in our hair and eventually they get inside of us. Those words certainly get inside me, reminding me of many atrocities of our past. Reconciliation cannot happen in an environment where such hurtful terminology continues to be used. With or without malice, with or without hurtful intentions, the result is the same. I’m reminded of another old expression; “The kids are throwing rocks in jest, but the frogs are dying in earnest.”