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Is “off the reservation” beyond the pale?

Indian Reservations in the United States

Some readers objected to the headline I put on last week’s column: “A court evangelical goes off the reservation.”

Tweeted one: “FYI: ‘Off the reservation’ is a racist phrase.” Commented another: “Perhaps you did not know, because it is used so widely in military applications (which ought to say something), but “off the reservation” comes from the justification for murdering Native Americans. It’s not too hard to avoid reproducing genocidal rhetoric; please consider the change.”

Let’s consider it.

The phrase did in fact originate with reference to American Indians confined by law to territorial reservations, as in a U.S. agent’s 1878  telegram that read, “No Indians are off the reservation without authority. All my Indians are loyal and peaceable, and doing well.”

The policy of enforced confinement may have been racist, if not genocidal. But should the phrase referring to the policy be considered the same—and specifically when used, as I did, analogically?

Let’s consider a few comparable cases.

  • During the intermittent persecutions of the early Church, Christians were sometimes thrown to the lions to amuse crowds seeking entertainment in Roman arenas. Does that make it anti-Christian to say, “Putting that new teacher in front of those unruly students would be throwing her to the lions”?
  • “Crusade” derives from Church-sanctioned military efforts to reclaim once-Christian lands from heretics and Muslims in the Middle Ages. Is it Islamophobic to describe a fearless journalist as a “crusading editor” or to praise a civil rights leader as a “Crusader without Violence“?
  • At the end of the 18th century, Catherine the Great required Jews to live within a western region of Imperial Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, making Jews who failed to do so without authorization “beyond the pale.” Should it be considered anti-Semitic to refer to, well, the use of “off the reservation” as “beyond the pale”?
  • Under slavery in the South, to be sold down the river meant being separated from one’s family and condemned to a life of brutal labor. If I experience a profound betrayal, is it racist to complain that I’ve been sold down the river?

To be sure, it is normal and proper to accord communities—religious, racial, ethnic—some deference when it comes to language referring to them. If the community in question wants to be called black or African-American rather than colored or Negro, then American society by and large does so. If Jews understand “Yid” to be a slur—even if it is the Yiddish word for Jew—then the word is excluded from civil discourse.

But there are limits. Just because the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to prevent his community from being referred to as Mormon doesn’t mean it will be.

So it comes down to cases. With respect to analogical usage, I’d say there are two criteria worth considering: the cultural currency of the language in question and the usefulness of the expression.

In the present case, Indian reservations are still in existence (as opposed to Christians being thrown to lions, the Church sanctioning crusades, Jews being kept within pales of settlement, and African Americans being sold down the river). Yet Indians (or Native Americans) are no longer confined to them by law.

“Off the reservation” is, admittedly, a rather tired cliché, but it has the virtue of indicating that a particular group is, for one reason or another, being kept together under pressure in one place. There is no question that evangelical leaders are currently under such pressure with respect to Donald Trump. (Just think of Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, whose criticism of Trump has been effectively quashed.)

Bottom line: I stand by my use of “off the reservation” in this case. But I’ll think twice about using it again.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Political Correctness often runs amuk doing its self/issues more harm than good. One other point, “going off the reservation” was also a way Indians fought back! When the Indian Agents withheld food they would go “off the reservation” to hunt to feed their families! It was a way they struck back at their abusers! So in reality it wasn’t and shouldn’t be considered a derogatory phrase.

  • This just in from the reservation.

    White man writer put Indians into fire with original headline. White man writer take Indians out of fire with new headline. White man writer put Indians in pale face pot with new headline. Indians wish white man writer write about real Indian issues. Indians wish white man writer write about editor in chief. Editor no chief. Editor pale face off reservation.

  • Since I took the déclassé headline as a reflection of Mark Silk’s documentable low regard for the subject of the article, evangelicals, pointing out that it also had the ring of “Uncle Tom” and other loaded pejoratives seemed to be gilding the lily.

  • My approach to these kinds of questions is simple: if members of the minority group in question say that it’s offensive, than it’s offensive and should be dropped from use. If the only people objecting are white folks who want to prove how not-racist they are, then the objections don’t matter and it’s fine to keep using. If you want to be racially sensitive, a good place to start is to listen to what people of that race are actually saying.

    If someone who is an American Indian (yes, I have spoken to a few and that’s what they prefer to be called) ever says that they consider the phrase offensive, I will gladly stop using it. If I ever see a statement from the American Indian Movement objecting to it, I will happily comply. Until then, I will file this under “silly white people tell others how to be offended by racism”.

    I’m really reminded of the American remake of Death Note (based on the Japanese manga, anime, and movies) done recently by Netflix. Some people from American were all up in arms because the main character was rewritten as a white guy. Meanwhile everyone from Japan was figuratively scratching their heads trying to understand what the big deal was. It’s a little hard to be outraged about something on someone else’s behalf when they aren’t upset about it to begin with.

  • I filed this under “pundit fails to quit while behind and tries to defend the undefendable”.

    “Oops” would have been much simpler and better.

  • “I’m really reminded of the American remake of Death Note (based on the Japanese manga, anime, and movies) done recently by Netflix. Some people from American were all up in arms because the main character was rewritten as a white guy”

    The funny part was the criticism in Japan had more to do with the content/execution of the story. They wrote off that version the same way they did the Godzilla film of the late 1990’s as “Americans will miss the point and the cultural references as a given”.

    Where they were really PO’ed was the film “Ghost in the Machine”. Because the story took place in Japan and the characters were all Japanese. Yet the lead, playing a character who is a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi in the film, was Scarlet Johannson.

  • There is no apparent research into the ways contemporary Native Americans experience and respond the phrase in this piece, which appears merely as a defensive self-justification. Even the very first page of google search results for the phrase “off the reservation” produces important reference points that Silk avoids accounting for. If one wishes to justify using such phrases (no one has called for it to be ‘forbidden,’ and framing it in this way prejudices the discussion), it certainly seems useful to account for such use in the context of how people it targets and refers to experience it. Since the author won’t do that, here are just a few links:

    Justifying the use of the phrase without any reference to contemporary Native Americans is a pretty blinkered approach.

    I hope we can attempt to do better, and discuss how to do better, without resort to simplistic justifications or accusations.

  • Thank you for this.

    I had assumed that everyone understood that if you went “off the reservation” you could be hunted down and killed just like a rabid dog or a rampaging bear.

    Apparently not.

    If they read your material they’ll be a lot wiser.

  • Wrong. Whether or not it hurts someone’s feelings or is offensive is not the defining factor – nor should it be.

    If you want to limit speech, move to China.

  • Is “beyond the pale” beyond the pale? After all, the original phrase referred to “the Pale,” the part of Ireland directly under English control during the 14th century, where the rest of Ireland was considered a place of ignorant barbarians. So the use of “beyond the pale” is outlandish bigotry. oops, the use of “outlandish” is also problematic in the extreme, in early 19th-century United States the Outlands was everything west of the Mississippi and the people that lived there (like the fur trappers) bizarre and barbaric — “outlandish.”

  • Ok. Then keep offending people all you want. But don’t be surprised when you’re called out as an uncivilized oaf.

  • That’s fine. Better to have it work that way then to be told what can and cannot be said. That is a slippery slope.

  • No one is actually considering censorship. This is a discussion of what is socially acceptable to say. It is a discussion of social norms, not government regulations.

  • I am saying that any expression needs to be looked at within the context of how/where it is used. Sometimes, an expression used by an Indian (off the reservation) has a different meaning than when the expression is used by a white person! That is part of the context. For the Indian it could mean an act of defiance against an illegitimate authority, which is a good thing. For the white person it could also mean an act of defiance against the “legitimate” authority, which is a bad thing! Both are acts of defiance but the context and who uses the term convey very different meanings.