The power of language and the words we choose | Editor's Notebook

It’s been a busy month, what with Viking Fest and all. Here are some newsworthy items from my notebook, all reminders of the power of language and the words we choose to use.

Tibbs on sovereignty: Chris Tibbs, candidate for District 1 County Commission, should take a course on the indigenous history of this region, as well as on tribal sovereignty.

Tibbs and fellow candidate Rob Gelder participated in a Q&A at the May 15 meeting of the North Kitsap Herald Community Advisory Board. When asked about his understanding of tribal sovereignty, Tibbs seemed to grasp the meaning of self-governance but referred to the Treaty of Point No Point as the treaty of 1888, and frequently referred to the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe as “the Little Boston tribe.”

The treaty was signed by representatives of the Chimakum, Skokomish, S’Klallam and the U.S. on Jan. 26, 1855. The treaty opened up land for non-Native settlement — the system of land ownership we have today — in exchange for $60,000 ($1.6 million in today’s dollars), certain assistance for education and health care, and a small reservation. Tribal leaders reserved the right to fish “at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

Tribal leaders argue that pollution in those “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” has resulted in diminished access to salmon, a violation of the treaty.

What’s in a word: At the Herald office on Tuesday, there was chatter on the police scanner about a domestic disturbance. The 9-1-1 dispatcher described a teen suspect as “mulatto.”

I assume she used the word to refer to the biracial heritage of the suspect. But the word is widely rejected today because of its association with racial oppression and slavery. Here’s why.

The Spanish who brought the word to this continent used it to describe biracial people, but it was condescending and derogatory in use. According to the Spanish Royal Academy, the term “is documented in our diachronic data bank in 1472 and is used in reference to livestock mules …,” that is, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Enslaved peoples from this continent and Africa were often used by the Spanish as beasts of burden; biracial people were treated as second-class citizens.

Words are powerful instruments. “Mulatto” is one that should not be used. “Biracial” would suffice if such a description is necessary.

Spelling of name of harbor corrected: The state Committee on Geographic Names approved on May 18 a proposal to change the spelling of Squamish Harbor in Jefferson County to Suquamish Harbor.

The Suquamish Tribe asked for the change. The proposal goes to the state Board on Geographic Names for a final decision.

Suquamish Harbor was named by Lt. Charles Wilkes in 1841 in recognition of the Suquamish villages in the area, and the name appeared on government maps between 1844 and 1869. Sometime after, the name was misspelled.

“Squamish” is the name of a First Nation in British Columbia, 150 miles north.


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