America: The Morality of a Geopolitical Designation

A while back, I saw an addition to a roadside sign that stated “Welcome to GREATER VICTORIA.” Appended underneath was another sign which read “LOCATED ON COAST SALISH TERRITORY.” The upper sign makes a colonialist statement. The lower sign signifies that the territory belongs to the Coast Salish, that include Xwsepsum, T’Sou-ke, Songhees, Pauquachin, Tseycum, Tsawout, Tsartlip, Scia’new, T’souke and Malahat, to which one Nuu-chah-Nulth First Nation, the Pacheedaht, could also be added.

The education department at “Vancouver” Island University has an area of study called Aboriginal Education. Aboriginal education pervades education throughout “British Columbia” nowadays. What is Aboriginal Education? Dacajeweiah (Splitting the Sky), a Kanien’kehá:ka (“people of the flint” — usually called Mohawks) warrior, told me the term “aboriginal” was anathema because 1) it was not their term, 2) it gets confused with Aborigines, and 3) because they call themselves Onkwehonwe which translates to “Original Peoples.” The prefix “ab-” he informed, means “away from.” Hence “aboriginal” is, arguably, a linguistic denial of who they are. The Ontario Grand Chiefs of the Ashinabek were in agreement, considering the term “aboriginal” to be “genocidal.”1

Why was the university using the term “aboriginal education”? Why had the university changed its name from one colonialist, Alessandro Malaspina, an Italian working for the Spanish navy (formerly VIU was Malaspina College) to another colonialist, Englishman captain George Vancouver (of whom Daniel Wright Clayton wrote, “Vancouver’s cartography facilitated the geopolitical process of appropriation that worked at a distance from Native peoples.”2 )

Elementary morality would posit as a simple principle that a locality’s designation be determined by the Indigenous people living there, not by newcomers. Part of acknowledging Indigenous designations is an action of raising awareness that the land in question, insofar as land can legitimately be owned, belongs to someone else and that, therefore, a theft has occurred. With that awareness then action to return what was stolen may more rapidly take place.

Onondaga elder Oren Lyons emphasized the importance of words in upholding the dispossession, “Empires are built on language. When we speak their languages, we come under their empire.”3

The dispossession enveloped the entire western hemisphere. Almost any map will refer to the northernmost continent as “North America.” Usually this designation is ascribed to Amerigo Vespucci, but historian Samuel Elliot Morris was adamant that it was not Vespucci, and he pointed instead to English expedition financier Richard Amerike.4 Dictionary.com went so far as to ask: “Why is it called America, not Columbusia?”5

Many of the eastern First Nations commonly refer to the continent as Turtle Island, a name derived from their legends. The Haida called the northern continent as Kwa’gauchi (Yonder Land).6 The names for the western hemisphere differ from First Nation to First Nation; e.g., Abya Yala7, Anahuac,8 and Ixachilan.9

Douglas George-Kanentiio, born to the Bear clan in Akwasanee, said, “We are not American, and we are not Canadian.”10 Political prisoner Leonard Peltier (Gwarth-ee-lass, “He Leads the People”) said “with no disrespect … I don’t consider myself an American citizen. I am a citizen of Great Turtle Island. I am of the Ikce Wicasa — the Common People, the Original People.”11

Does the redesignation and entrenchment of a colonial theft and usurpation over time legally legitimate the “international consensus” and currently applicable international laws?12 The argument is flimsy. On the one hand, it represents a case of “special pleading” which seeks to justify illegal actions (theft and killing) on specious grounds. On the other hand, pointing to an international consensus serves only to point out a majority view; it does not make the majority view correct.13 Moreover, is legality what primarily drives humanity? Does morality not supersede legality? Logicians might call such an appeal that obviates the past and prioritizes current facts-on-the-ground as enfeebled by the run-away train fallacy. In this case, if dispossession is legitimate/valid now, then further cases of dispossession should be legitimate/valid in the future. Moral principles are enduring. Human laws, as opposed to natural laws, are subject to change over time.

After all, empires do fall.

  1. Press Release, “Anishinabek Grand Council Chief: We are not aboriginal,” 18 May 2011. []
  2. Daniel Wright Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000): 192. []
  3. Oren Lyons, “Spirituality, Equality, and Natural Law,” 5-13 in Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long (Eds.) Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985): 6. []
  4. Samuel Elliot Morris, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971): 163. []
  5. Dictionary.com, “Why is it called America, not Columbusia?” 13 October 2013. []
  6. In E.C. Meyers, (Ed.) Totem Tales: Legends from the Rainforest (Surrey, BC: Hancock House, 2005): 7. []
  7. See Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South, and Central America, New World of Indigenous Resistance, Lois Meyer and Benjamín Maldonado Alvarado (Eds.) (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010): 189, 239-250. []
  8. Why we are MEXICA People?” Ollin Yoliztli Calmecac. []
  9. Originally at Mexica, Mexica Uprising; the information is preserved online here. The Mexica site has now become Calmecac Anahuac where “A Brief History of the Mexicayotl Movement By Itztli Ehecatl” the same basic information can be found. See also post by Chanchan Tupac at Ancient Worlds: The Americas: Tupac wrote: “Ixachilan means The great land…
    It is referering [sic] to both the North and the South American continent. Okay it’s a nahuatl expression, but none the less, if the Mexicans today use it to refer to The Americas, I think this is our best option in our attempt to combine both continents in one ‘city-name’.” []
  10. Douglas George-Kanentiio, “Native Language, Native Spirituality: From Crisis to Challenge,” 75-96 in Huston Smith, A Seat at the Table: In Conservations with Native Americans on Religious Freedom (University of California Press, 2007): 85. []
  11. From Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin’s Griffin, June 2000). []
  12. See the case made recently by Noam Chomsky that the land theft carried out by European Jews in the dispossession of indigenous Palestinians should be solved according to the “international consensus” and international law. Noam Chomsky, “On Israel-Palestine and BDS,” ICH, 4 July 2014. See also Kim Petersen, “Who Decides for the Palestinians?Dissident Voice, 5 July 2014. []
  13. Otherwise know as argumentum ad populum or mob appeal. See Madsen Pirie, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic (New York, Continuum: 2006). []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.