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I’ve heard someone use the phrase “off the reservation” several times recently. I’ve never made a habit of using the phrase, but insofar as I ever have I don’t intend to use it again.

The idea is that a person or group is perceived as acting outside typical or expected parameters. The person or group is doing something that someone else thinks isn’t quite right, going off balance, headed in a wrong or unapproved direction.

The phrase dates to the late 19th Century after most Indian or Native American tribes had been given (forcibly moved to) “Reservations,” large tracts of land in Oklahoma or Arizona, for example, land generally unwanted by non-Indians. The tribes had fought, sometimes over decades, an inevitably unsuccessful war for their ancestral lands and eventually surrendered in order for at least tribal remnants to survive. It was a period of systematic subjugation, even genocide, of the Red Man by the White Man.

From time to time in the next few years, Indians who left the reservation in frustration or desperation were called “renegades” and were hunted down because they’d gone “off the reservation.”

The phrase “off the reservation” is therefore an historical leftover. I hear it used, but I don’t like it. Even though I’m not particularly “politically correct,” the phrase strikes me as a kind of antiquated reference harking back to a sorry and shameful time in American history. The phrase perpetuates the idea that certain people or groups are subhuman and ought to be controlled for their own good.

This entire blog sprang fully developed into my mind when I heard a person use “off the reservation” during a conversation about how two different kinds of ethnic groups didn’t get along. The person who said it was making a point with which I agreed and is a man of character and solid values. But he seemed oblivious to the irony of using this particular phrase in the midst of a conversation about prejudice, hatred, and violence between people groups.

I don’t think using the phrase “off the reservation” is a mortal sin, not even a venial one. But I still don’t like its roots and what it implies. For me at least, I’ll find a different way to talk about someone or some group going rogue.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

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