Tag Archives: Native American

ndn: From Internet Abbreviation to 21st Century Identifier


Debbie says:

This article by Lou Cornum is two weeks old, which means that in Internet time it’s practically last year’s news; fortunately, Cornum’s analysis goes back to 2010 and earlier and will not be out of date any time soon. I wanted to write about it because so much of this is new to me — and shouldn’t be.

Though its meaning may at first have been unclear, “ndn” is now widely understood online to mean Indian. But how does anyone know if they’ve ever actually heard ndn? The word is hard to say aloud in a way that marks its divergence from Indian. I sometimes jokingly exaggerate the undertones of French pronunciation in the nasalization of n-dee-n (or Indienne). Otherwise, I am content to say “Indian” and hope that those I speak to, those in the know, can hear what I’m really saying: ndn.

This difficulty in articulation indicates how well-suited ndns are to the internet. Ndn is a subtraction made substantive, marking how terms made to describe Indigenous peoples are always lacking — indeed how we are made to lack and always feel lacking. But in the word’s notes of subversion and irreverence, as well as its widespread use in forming digital collectives and connections, ndn also signals the ways in which ndns build worlds even as ours are invaded and denigrated. This remains true in the ways ndns emerged on the internet and continue to use internet spaces for cultural expression, consciousness-raising and political organization. In my time on the ndn internet, the term has come to signify not just a clever transfiguration but also a digital model for how ndns might form new kinds of relationships at the outer limits of colonial categories.

I am, of course, familiar with reclaiming terms that are historically used pejoratively. In a week that just saw the Dyke March, and a lot of queer culture, that transformation is easy to see. This struck me as a qualitatively different kind of reclaiming and transformation: not simply reframing a term in common usage, but repurposing an abbreviation-for-convenience and recognizing the effect of its content: as Corum says above, using the way terms for their people are “always lacking.”

I also appreciate the way ndn takes advantage of current technology in a culture rightfully known for upholding ancient traditions:

Ndn was born on the internet. Like multiplying fungal fruits, new language forms sprout from disturbances and cross-fertilizations. I can’t pinpoint when or where ndn began, but my feeling is it popped up in various patches simultaneously. Once a large number of Native people got on the internet, we began to build ways of connecting and alerting ourselves to our own mass. Again and again, #ndn emerged as the node we extended into a solidifying network. By the mid-2000s, Ndn Country had arrived. …

As a hashtag, #ndn has been forming an archive of Indigenous people’s missives and creating portals to click through to each other. It provides a sense of multitudinous widespread groups of ndn people, much more in excess of what a word like Indian attempts to contain. Each #ndn is like a little land claim, staking out as Indigenous a much different kind of space than is usually associated with Indigenous territories. In cyber space our claims to collective presence across many tribal and national affiliations may be bound by the constraints of code and tied to physical IP addresses, but an online network also allows people from disparate territories to hold and shape a new kind of digitally-grounded, diffuse territory together.

Cornum’s article is long and thoughtful, and goes into contemporary politics (including Idle No More and Standing Rock), their internal experience, research into the history of ndn, and more. If you aren’t already familiar with this term and its resonances (as I really was not), or if you swim in these waters, you’ll appreciate the whole piece.

I appreciate the effort of this particular ndn exploring their own digital landscape and personal history in public, and being gracious enough to let me watch the process.

Geronimo Is Not bin Laden

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you aren’t living under a rock somewhere, you know that the United States’ government’s operation which succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden was code-named Geronimo. As you probably also know, Geronimo is not just a cool-sounding word that a kid says when her sled barrels down the hill. Geronimo was a heroic Native American (Chiricahua Apache) leader who fought against the United States in an attempt to preserve Apache lands.

Indian Country Today Media Network published an excellent interview with Jeff Houser, Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman, who has asked President Obama to issue a formal apology for connecting Geronimo’s name to the most hated man of the 21st century.

[Tuesday] I was looking at the local paper and the headline said, “Relentless: How U.S. Brought Justice to Bin Laden’s Doorstep.” And there was a little quote that says the Seals killed Bin Laden with a bullet to the head using the code that Geronimo had been killed in action. I thought, “Geronimo”?

I think it was something done without a whole lot of thought as to how it would be represented to most of the Indian community. So often we’re not really thought of, we’re not really considered, so I think it was just another example of that. But this is the second time this year that the federal government has referenced Native people as similar to al Qaeda. There was a filing in federal court that compared the Seminoles to al Qaeda.

[If President Obama doesn’t apologize], then he misses an opportunity to really show Native people that he understands our struggles. So often tribes struggle and so this would just be another in the long line of problems we’ve faced and any number of things that have arisen over and over again. So if nothing comes of it, I wouldn’t really be surprised and I wouldn’t really be upset, but I’d be disappointed.

I’m very thankful for the response throughout Indian county and hope that at the very least this does provide an opportunity for tribal leaders to speak with a unified voice. For us (Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches), having been imprisoned and referred to as enemies and savage and violent people and walked away from for nearly 30 years to have this association return is painful and I hope the collective response of Natives around the country and around the world will show that it’s not the appropriate thing to do. Our tribe was a prisoner of war with Geronimo. Unlike bin Laden, Geronimo didn’t resist; he willingly surrendered, relying on the promise of the American to return to his homeland in two years, and we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.

Neither of us expects Obama to apologize either, although of course he should.

Racial, religious, and ethnic terms slip all-too-easily into the language, in ways that let people who use them pretend (and even sometimes believe) that the terms don’t have their own history. These terms can be slurs, or complex cultural concepts, or names of heroes (or anything in between). It’s easy to say, “You’re behaving like a Jewish mother” without realizing that you’re feeding anti-Semitism. It’s easy to say, “Oh, those children were stolen by gypsies” without realizing that you’re categorizing an entire population as thieves, especially if you don’t know anyone that you know is Romany. It’s easy to say “Keep your cotton-picking hands off me” without thinking either about the hard labor of picking cotton or the “horny, calloused (and usually black) hands that picked cotton.” It’s easy to use the code name “Geronimo” for bin Laden without thinking about what you’re implying about the real Geronimo.

People who would never use the known ethnic slurs use terms like “gypped” and “Jewish princess” much more freely. We’re very appreciative of Jeff Hauser (and the unified Indian country reaction behind him) for calling for the apology. Calling out these underlying meanings regularly and clearly is the only chance we have to restore the history and change the language.