What’s in a Word: Native Americans, Tigers & Gauteng

Photo courtesy of Secret Sunrise Johannesburg's FB page
Photo courtesy of Secret Sunrise Johannesburg’s FB page

I love Secret Sunrise: you get to dance to an amazing selection of music, without: 

a) queueing until 11pm when night clubs open;
b) killing your feet in stilettos;
c) nursing a hangover the next day.

So, when I took my best friend to this Sunday’s first edition of Secret Sunday, I had to laugh when she pulled her earphones away from her ears, and shouted: “Let’s go on a trip”. Secret Sunrise is pretty trippy – just without the drugs. By suggesting that we go on a trip, she actually meant, let’s dance move around through the crowds and explore the space and the participants.

The theme for this Sunday’s Secret Sunrise was “Cowboys & Native Americans”. I didn’t think too much about it beforehand, other than realising that I had no appropriate dress-up garb. So we arrived in our yoga gear, rather than our cowboy boots and hats or our feather head-dresses. If you’ve never been to Secret Sunrise before, I need to explain that each song has an “instructor” who sort of narrates ideas, perspectives or vague instructions for the crowd to follow or to be inspired by (though mostly you can just let loose and dance freestyle, to the music). The first instructor introduced the choice of theme of Cowboys & Native Americans: with all the conflict breaking out globally right now, it seemed a good time to learn from history, to investigate the idea of conflict and to think about how to resolve conflict in one’s own life. When he said the words “Cowboys and Native Americans”, I briefly stopped dancing around the warehouse in New Doornfontein. They sounded strange and my instinct was to correct him. “It’s Cowboys and Indians”, I wanted to shout. It was only a fleeting moment before my intellect overtook my instinct. Cowboys and Indians had gone together like a horse and carriage in my childhood and while I perfectly understood the rationale behind the up-dated version, I simply wasn’t accustomed to it.

Ironically, a few hours later, I was in a theatre watching a rendition of Peter Pan aimed at young children. When Wendy and her brothers fly to Never Land with Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, they encounter a group of “Indians” replete with pigtails, tassled clothes and teepees. The show’s writers had not up-dated the script and the tribe was made to speak halting English, in the present tense, devoid of prepositions, uttering phrases such as “Brave Girl sad”.

It sounded a whole lot stranger than “cowboys and Native Americans”. It sounded like stereotyping and paternalism from another era. And that’s when I realised that the words we use – as jarring or as pedantic as the politically correct versions may seem sometimes – really do matter.

When I begin to recite “eeny, meeny, miny, mo” to my children, I instinctively open my mouth to recite a very offensive word. It has remained in my subconscious since childhood, when I had no knowledge of its meaning – quite literally. Now, I choose the word “tiger” for the alliteration:

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
Catch a tiger by his toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,

Soon enough, “tiger” will sound as natural as the name of my adopted province – Gauteng. And the “n” word will sound as out of place as the word “Transvaal”.

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