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The use of the expression "off the reservation" is a pet peeve of mine.  When considered in historical context, its use never seems to make sense.  Jane Hamsher used it in the piece that ignited today's firestorm/ brouhaha. (emphasis added)

It’s really, really hard to believe that Lieberman is off the reservation here. He owes his chairmanship to Obama’s and Reid’s intercession after what he did during 2008.

I read through some of the comments, and found quite a few users employing that same expression.  If only people would think for two seconds before tossing that phrase around, they might never say it.  (One can hope.)  This from kossack cacamp:

btw, I live on a reservation (Rosebud) but I'm going off it to get groceries later this afternoon... just sayin :)

The expression's origins are in the 19th century.

I'm not going to heavily source this.  We all pretty much know the basic history.  Throughout the 1800s, Native Americans were (mostly forcibly) confined to reservations.  The last of it came after the Civil War, when the nation turned its attention to the West again.

Geronimo lived until 1909, four months before his 80th birthday.  Below:  That's him at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, wearing a top hat and driving a Locomobile Model C (below.)  There's a lot of pictures of Geronimo knocking about.  He made a pretty good living charging people a fee to take his picture.  (If he ever worried that a photograph would steal his spirit, perhaps he figured it was already gone???)

I still have vivid recall of walking down 6th avenue in Greenwich Village, New York City, some 25 years ago.  Right across a crosswalk, Andy Warhol's iconic treatment of the Red Menace of the 1880s in a gallery window practically knocked me down with the intensity of its bitterness.

Warhol started with the picture that appears above the fold, which was produced by the War Department.  The captive chief in a photo studio, holding a rifle but not allowed any ammo.  After he finally surrendered, he got sent to prison Florida.  That's a long way from the Chiricahuas!  And might have been enough to break his heart, which had been broken before.  Train transporting the Apache prisoners to Florida, at a stop in Texas (1886) - Geronimo's third from the right in the front row:

Not once, but twice, his entire family was slain by soldier and/or settlers.  Twice!  They were peacefully going about their daily life, while he was away from their encampment.  Keeping that in mind, one can understand how POed he was about the changes that thrust themselves upon him during his eight decades of life.

He didn't want to submit to anyone, be confined to one patch of land.  I remember some modern-day Apaches telling me once:  "Our culture is nomadic.  We don't think anything of driving long distances."  Their artifacts are all over the place in the Southwest.  They got around!

Getting confined to a reservation, like for other tribes, was hardly embraced.  In many cases, it came by brutal force.  And considering what a lot of reservations were/are like, it wasn't exactly easy to survive on agriculture like the Bureau of Indian Affairs (then under the War Department) wanted them to do.  This from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in southwestern South Dakota:

So, back to the generic history:  A lot of tribes got confined to reservations and didn't exactly get what they were promised.  They were starving, freezing.  Didn't want to give up their arms because they didn't want to give up hunting.  There was a lot of corruption, too, and resources and expenditures intended for the tribes sometimes got "misdirected."  Elouise Cobell's class action suit, demanding an accounting of money owed for leases &c, dates back to the 1800s.  (There's as much as $100 billion, by some estimates more, owed to the tribes that cannot be accounted for.)  

All too often, survival was marginal at best on the reservations.  And sometimes, tribes decided the "deal" wasn't working out, and they didn't want to stay on the reservation any more.  This was unacceptable to the US authority at the time, and the renegades would be rounded up.  Thus the train to Florida.  Often, too, a lot of them died.

The Nez Perce, in the 1870s, decided they didn't want to go on a reservation.  And set out through the Montana Rockies for Canada.  In the winter, and under full pursuit by the US Army.  Many died.  The survivors were removed from their beautiful home in the Wallowa valley in Eastern Oregon, to Idaho.  Recently, they have been using casino proceeds to start buying some of it back - more than a century after they were driven away.  Chief Joseph with his surviving family.  I don't know, but I'd guess some of these kids are adopted orphans.



The Nez Perce paid a steep price for going "off the reservation" in their run for Canada.  Rather than let them go to Canada, they were hunted down and dragged back, with massive casualties.

Captain Jack was a famous holdout in the lava country north of Mount Shasta, along the California/Oregon border.  I've long thought that it would be an interesting exercise to find newspaper descriptions of those hard-to-tame Indians and compare them to how "terrorists" have been described in recent years.  (I put "terrorist" in quotes because it seems to me the word is gradually, steadily being leached of its meaning.)

And then, commonly, the parents were kept on the reservation while their children went off to boarding school, not ever coming home again, for summers or holidays.  They were punished, too often beaten, for speaking their native languages, even to their own siblings.  Pressure on parents to send their children away sometimes crossed the line over into coercion.  Or it was a Stella Dallas kind of decision, which turned out to be in the service of cultural genocide.


JOE LIEBERMAN

Joe Lieberman is "off the reservation"?  WTF?  I know he sucks.  Obviously.  Noxious in so very many ways.

Lookit:  I'm sorry, but I don't get the analogy.  What tribe is Lieberman like?  What experience has he had that's comparable to being given smallpox blankets to drive him "over the edge"?  Could we stop describing him as "off the reservation"?  Please?  (Mount Rushmore was built upon Lakota sacred place.)

If you're saying "off the reservation", you're identifying yourself with the hunting down of Indians.  Do you really want to go there?  This, also from user cacamp, I sent to top comments tonight.  He gets the last word:

I'm sittin here on the rez...
...but later today I'll go off it to the store. I do understand the saying though since my Great-granddad (Big Snake - Ponca) was killed for leaving ours to go visit the Cheyenne.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Wed Oct 28, 2009 at 09:02 PM PDT.

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