Colonialism and the Words We Choose: Lessons from Museum and Academy

About two months ago I was in a local museum with my family learning about the eighteenth century history of the community in which the museum was located. In many ways we had a typical country museum experience. We were met by costumed interpreters and told the stories of the building and the people who lived there. Then we learned about some of the broader historical context. For our guide, the story this museum told hinged on the European settlement of the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

As a historian who studies Native communities during the eighteenth century in the places best-known today as Quebec, New England and Maritime Canada, I felt that I had been transported to a different era. Though wilderness remains pervasive, isn’t the noun savage an artifact from an earlier century? And don’t Native people have a history that predates their encounter with Europeans?

Our guide was telling a story and using words and phrases that I assumed had been retired to the historian’s dustbin long ago. His language dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when Native people were rarely the subject of historical inquiry and words like wild and savage were commonly used to describe these people.

Recognizing that this language is both inaccurate and reinforces colonial visions of the past, most of today’s historians have discarded this vocabulary in favour of words and phrases that better represent the experiences of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century peoples. Rarely do these words and phrases – the vocabulary adopted by my tour guide – appear in the books, articles and museum displays produced by today’s historians. Or, at least, so I thought.

The most recent issue of the William and Mary Quarterly features a provocative forum on the vocabulary used to describe Aboriginal history during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century. It suggests that although few people employ language like my tour guide, many historians still use terms that diminish the Native American past. James Merrell, the author of the featured essay in the forum, argues that although historians have done a better job at including Native people in the stories they tell, their vocabulary and narrative structure continues to revolve around the experiences of Europeans and their American descendants.

Merrell’s article addresses terms that many recognize as problematic. Words such as precontact/postcontact, discovery, and prehistory have been generally regarded as historically inappropriate for the study of Native history (and history more generally for the final word in this list). But Merrell also discusses terms that many of us – myself included – continue to use on a regular basis.  Depending on the context, Merrell suggests that words and phrases like hunting territory, occupied, controlled, and settler can have implications that place Native and European societies on an unequal historical footing.

Take two examples:

  • Merrell draws out a long list of commonly used words that continue to depict North American history from the Atlantic shoreline. Words like Backcountry, backlands, backwoods, hinterland, marchland and periphery all orient North America’s historical geography to the eastern colonies – the “newcomer’s way of seeing the land,” according to Merrell – despite the fact that the places to which these terms refer were often the heartland of indigenous cultures.
  • Merrell emphasizes how land-related words like occupied, claimed, controlled and settled reflect the historiographical impermanence of Native people on the land and the permanent presence of Europeans. Europeans are described as settling in a place, whereas Aboriginal people are left to make claims and occupy the territory in which they live.

Although the lingo in modern scholarship may be less offensive than my tour guide a couple of weeks ago, the message in Merrell’s essay is that similar trends continue among professional historians. Despite broader inclusion of Native people as a subject studied by historians, North American history remains a discipline anchored in a European tradition.

The point here is not to pillory historians, and others, whose language remains steeped in a Columbianesque narrative. There’s no need for a witch-hunt. A number of the responses to Merrell’s article point out that the conditions under which language is employed is complicated, making its policing difficult.

Andrew Clayton‘s and Mark Peterson‘s critiques get to the heart of the trouble. They emphasize that most people – historians included – continue to define history through the lens of the nation-state. For most of us, when we refer to the study of the past in North America, we really mean the study of what have now become Canada and the United States. Our research into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries doesn’t begin with an effort to understand the past as it really was, but rather as it shaped our present-day countries. As long as we continue to frame the past from this perspective, it will be difficult to discard many of the words, phrases and ways of thinking Merrell outlines.

To move beyond this linguistic legacy, there may be need for a more fundamental shift in how historians frame our research and the curriculum and programming we develop. Can we really expect significant change when we frame this period as ‘pre-Confederation Canada’ or ‘Colonial America’? Not only do these titles ignore the people who lived in North America before the forefathers of Canada and the United States built their countries, but they also reinforce popular assumptions that the creation of the United States and Canada was inevitable.

In writing his article, Merrell makes a plea for historians – and really anyone who discusses the past publically (such as tour guides) – to use a vocabulary that better reflects the worlds in which people lived. Our language should not pigeonhole the people of the past into a pre-determined historical narrative. Rather the words we choose and the stories we tell should treat the people of the past equally, assessing their relative influence upon, and importance to, each other.

This is an important lesson for those of us interested in practicing Active History. Active Historians seek to listen to the people who affect, and are affected by, our research. This is an exercise that is implicit to the linguistic transition that Merrell, and his critics, seek to bring about. Although the essays in the July issue of the William and Mary Quarterly focus on Native people, the lessons embedded within these texts permeate the historical profession. Whether or not you are engaged in researching or writing Aboriginal history, Merrell’s article and the critiques that follow it serve as useful fodder for classroom discussions, public workshops, and really, just about anyone interested in practicing Active History and using the historian’s tools to accurately and respectfully reflect the past.

Thomas Peace is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. 

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5 thoughts on “Colonialism and the Words We Choose: Lessons from Museum and Academy

  1. Dave

    Nice piece. I trust when you used the phrase ‘witch hunt’, you were being ironic? Implying that people have something they need to be hunted down for, even if in the same breath renouncing the objective, might not go down well with our Wiccan cousins…

    Incidentally, what are the odds that your museum-guide was talking ‘in character’?

  2. R. Connie Wawruck-Hemmett

    If the guide was “talking in character” the words would be appropriate for a historically accurate presentation.

  3. Anne Marie LJ

    If the presenter was in character, such a presentation would really only be useful and appropriate if there were a native (now I am struck with anxiety about language use, hope I avoid disastrous pitfalls) community represented nearby, where their perspectives and experiences could be presented. Without this context, some visitors will take away the one perspective at face value and not reflect on the specific experiences and world view it reflects. Plimouth Plantation has made some good steps in this direction.

  4. Anne Marie Goodfellow

    I think the real problem here is the lack of understanding of the general public about the history of North America prior to European settlement. I taught university courses on topics related to Native Americans/First Nations for several years, and my students were usually shocked to learn that some even practiced agriculture and had permanent settlements. They even spoke different languages! In one of my classes, I had students do presentations on CURRENT issues for indigenous North American peoples. That was an eye-opener. If people are not aware of the diversity in indigenous populations, past and present, and only learn of it through university anthropology or history courses, that leaves out a majority of the population. Elementary and high school curriculum needs to be updated so that these types of things become common knowledge.

  5. Tom Peace Post author

    Thank you for all your comments. I am really glad to see the discussion that this post has generated (even in the doldrums of summer!). I’ve responded in more concrete detail about the issue of first person interpretation in the comments section of the piece that follows this one ( Suffice it to say here that as far as I (or my partner) could tell this was not an issue of first person interpretation. We never got the sense that the guide was speaking to us in character. My interpretation of the situation is that the guide was sharing with us what he thought was common knowledge. Although this points out a major problem with this museum, I didn’t think it wise to include the identity of the museum in this post because of the potential negative consequences that publicizing this single anecdote could have.

    I also wanted to let our readers know that this post has generated a lot of fruitful discussion. If you’re interested in thinking about these issues more, you might also want to take a look at…

    Christopher Dummitt responded to this piece on his blog Everyday History:

    Andrew Smith picked up on the issue of first person interpretation:

    I responded to Dummitt in a supplemental post, here on

    Dummitt responded to this on his blog:

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