According to Wikipedia, the phrase “to go off the reservation” is a verb meaning:
- (literally) To leave a reservation to which one was restricted.
- (US, politics) To break with one’s party or group, usually temporarily.
- (by extension) To engage in disruptive activity outside of normal bounds.
Here we find history working its way into modern vernacular without any acknowledgment or consideration of origin or meaning. It only took one Google search to find recent uses of the above term. An episode on AMC’s The Killing was titled “Off the Reservation.” (Not having seen the show, I cannot speak to its usage in this context, but portions of the story do take place on a reservation.) Next, Vice President Joe Biden’s restated view on same sex marriage was featured in a Forbes article titled “Joe Biden Steps Off The Reservation – Supports Gay Marriage.” Finally, an Urban Dictionary contributor interpreted the phrase to mean “crazy,” as used in the film Wedding Crashers: “I’m terrified of this girl. She’s completely off the reservation.”
Considering these examples, the phrase is used in three different ways that are not in a historical context. Yet, “off the reservation” didn’t just appear out of thin air, despite its seemingly increased use in the popular culture. Could there be a connection between the current popularity of the phrase and the present trend of perceived Native American culture in mainstream popular culture? (Maybe I’m reaching with that one!)
To the point, what is troubling about the use of “off the reservation” and other phrases like it is that they are freely used without any thought to literal meaning and how that is connected to casual usage. Keeping in mind the history of the U.S. and the reservation system, the literal meaning can begin to surface in modern usage. It is within the historical context that the offensiveness of the phrase can really be seen. Looking at the meaning used in Wedding Crashers, to be or go “off the reservation” would mean that one is not normal. Perhaps even crazy.
But I ask you:
- Is it crazy for a person to leave a reservation that people were forcibly relocated to after a tradition of being some of the freest people to ever live?
- Is it not normal for a person to go “off the reservation” after being cutoff from all the resources to which they used to have free access?
- People did go “off the reservation,” despite the laws, punishments, and lack of civil rights meant to keep Native Americans on reservations until 1924.
- Perhaps what may be deemed as crazy may not be crazy when faced with the need to survive and the loss of culture that results from institutionalized oppression.
Just as bothersome is the Forbes meaning, that to go “off the reservation” is to separate from one’s group. In a political context, the meaning assumes that one leaves one’s party even temporarily for ideological reasons. Linking this definition with a historical context, it then supposes that for a Native American to leave the reservation creates a split between individual and the community (even temporarily). Removing the physical aspect of leaving from the equation, we are left with the ideological aspect that infers, historically, that Native Americans have wanted to be placed on a reservation.
Finally, the issue with “off the reservation” and similar phrases is that these things are said without any thought. They become a part of the common vernacular. Freely they move from mind to mind, mouth to mouth. Maybe the meaning of these sorts of phrases never should have been the issue. Maybe living lives without thinking about what we say and do is of greater concern.