Excluding exogenous others while excepting indigenous ones: Kathryn Walkiewicz, ‘Affirmative Exclusions: The Indigenous Exception in Oklahoma’s Official English’, Native American and Indigenous Studies, 3, 2, 2016 pp. 25-44


Excerpt: The decade following 9/11 saw a wave of state and federal legislative efforts to secure borders and identify terrorists. As evidenced perhaps most famously by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the passage of the Patriot Act, the “era of terror” ushered in a new relationship between national security, mobility, and surveillance that functioned in tandem with decreased regulation and transparency of national security efforts. Panic about the falling numbers of jobs and resources during the economic recession that followed the 2008 housing market crash, along with heightened militarization, catalyzed a reactionary swing to the far right that assigned significant blame for these national “crises” onto the figure of the “foreigner” as the cause of this terror. As legal scholar Leti Volpp has shown in her work on post-9/11 hate crimes and racial profiling, the terrorist and the immigrant become figures of suspicion which threaten U.S. surveillance of bodies and capital that travel within its parameters unmonitored. Moreover, they become conflated—almost one and the same. In the post-9/11 United States, immigration has produced a correlative relationship between the “illegal immigrant” (often read as Spanish-speaking) and the “foreign terrorist” (often read as a Muslim extremist)—both seen as threats to the state’s militarized autonomy and economy, and both aligned in racially and historically loaded ways.

In the mid-2000s, official English legislation (also known as the “English-only movement”) gained short-term popularity as a way for states to assert a political stance on autonomy, foreign affairs, and multiculturalism under the valence of patriotism. Thus English became a weapon in the global war on terror, and non-English-speaking individuals became suspect, made synonymous with the figure of the threatening outsider, the immigrant other. Arizona’s official English debates received the lion’s share of media attention, but Idaho, Kansas, and Oklahoma followed suit by passing legislation of their own. In this essay I argue that the Oklahoma Official Language Implementation Act, authorizing an amendment to the state constitution, marked a key rhetorical shift in Indigenous–settler relations. By including an exception for Native language use in the amendment, Native nations are understood as “affirmative exclusions” (or positive exceptions) to the legislation, in contrast to the perceived foreign “other” targeted under the changes. I begin by outlining the stakes of these changes and presenting an analysis of the exception made for Indigenous languages in the amendment. I then provide historical context for current Indigenous–settler relations in Oklahoma. After situating the amendment in a longer regional history, I move into an analysis of the legislative debates and their contemporaneous press coverage, as well as a discussion of the logics of neoliberal multiculturalism that undergirded the debates. I end with considerations of the larger impact official English may have both in Oklahoma and beyond its borders.

The amendment received overwhelming support in a 2010 general vote, but while under discussion in both houses of the legislature in 2009 it garnered outspoken criticism from some key constituents. English symbolically registered national and state pride for many Oklahomans, but compulsory language use also triggered memories of the state’s long colonial history. As State Representative Mike Brown (D) emphatically insisted in 2009 legislative debates, official English “reek[ed] of forced assimilation.” The legislation echoed language debates of a prior era in which Native peoples, particularly children, as a method of assimilation and colonial acculturation were forcibly required to stop speaking their Indigenous languages and only speak English; history threatened to repeat itself (yet again) in Oklahoma. But legislators who supported the bill insisted that it was not about repeating the sins of Oklahoma’s colonial past. Rather, they assured, it was about protecting current citizens from the threat of a cultural and economic terror ushered in by an imagined inundation of immigrants.

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