ENGL 328: Native

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Etymology, basic definitions, and things to look for

"Native" comes into English from the French adjective natif, itself from the Latin adjective nativus, meaning innate or natural, formed from the past participle natus of nascor, -i, natus sum, "to be born." Both the French and Latin adjective can be used substantively.

1) In his 1836 dictionary, Samuel Johnson seems to adhere to this etymology, giving as the definition for "native": s. one born in any country, offspring--a. natural, not artificial, original.

2) n, A person who was among the first to inhabit an area. ex: a Native American.

3) adj, being from a place originally--in the case of humans, from birth; for other species, those that are historically indiginous to a place

4) adj, Characterizing a language that you learned before all others.

5) OED definition: "A member of an indigenous ethnic group. Freq. with a suggestion of inferior status, culture, etc., and hence (esp. in modern usage) considered offensive."

Raymond Williams points out the contradictory yet concurrent connotations of native: “while retaining a substantial unity of meaning, [it is] applied in particular contexts in ways which produce radically different and even opposite senses and tones” (Williams 215). Affirming and deprecating examples of "native" can be found at different historical moments, and most confusingly, often side by side in the same text.

Johnson's Usage

Johnson's uniquely positive usage of "native," either to valorize inherent ability or people who can claim ownership of their country, seems to imply that the word is not yet being used in the derogatory manner discussed by Williams and evidenced in later texts.

In his discussion of human ability, specifically Shakespeare's, Johnson sticks very closely to his own definition, using "native" to mean "being naturally inherent in a person or thing as if from the moment of its creation, as opposed to developed by practice or instruction" (our collaborative group definition). ex. "Though to the reader a books be not worse or better for the circumstances of the author, yet as there is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry how far man may extend his designs, or how high he may rate his native force is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments, as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and how much to casual and adventitious help" (434). This longish citation juxtaposes "native force" or "original powers" with "help." What kind of help Johnson is referring to becomes more clear soon after: "It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of scholastic education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient authors" (436). This clearly indicates the kinds of "help" Johnson considers to be beside "native force"; he even strengthens it when he describes Theobald, an editor of Shakespeare's works, as "a man of narrow comprehension and small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsic splendour of genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it" (444). It is interesting to note here that "native" is paired with "intrinsic" to describe genius, in opposition to the "artificial light" cast by "learning." It could be argued that Johnson goes a little to far with his valorization of "native": without learning, critical science and the works of others to draw from, interrogate and depart from, how far can "native force" get an artist? What does "native force" even refer to, given that language has to be learned and imitated before vocal expression is even possible?

Johnson, in this same conversation on Shakespeare, uses "native" to refer to qualities of people and things that are "natural, not artificial, original (from his own definition of "Native" from his 1836 dictionary). He says in the Bard's writing, "there is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and native excellence proceeds […] Our author had both matter and form to provide; for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which showed life in its native colours" (438), and later that, "though he had so many difficulties to encounter, and so little assistance to surmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of life, and many casts of native dispositions" (439). Shakespeare, then, through his "native excellence," is able to articulate the "native colours" and "native dispositions" of the world and its inhabitants, striking closest to the truth to uncover these inherent and oft-misrepresented aspects.

(This idea of native as inherent or original, can also be seen in Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. See below.)

Johnson also uses "native" affirmatively to speak of Europeans and Native Americans who feel violated on their own turf. For example: "I have registered as they [words of foreign origin] occurred, though commonly only to censure them, and warn others against the folly of naturalizing useless foreigners to the injury of the natives (Johnson 313). Here, native status is valorized in the native/foreign dichotomy; mobilizing what seems to be a citizenship metaphor, Johnson argues against willy-nilly naturalization of foreign words on the grounds that such an action will injure the natives that for some reason ought to be protected. Johnson again shows his preference for his native (heh) language, saying that Teutonic and Gallic influences on English should be checked against what passes easily into the "genius of our tongue [and incorporates] easily with our native idioms" (319). The point is clear: native idioms are inherently preferable to those of foreign origin.

Johnson's usage remains positive in "European Oppression in America" when referring to American Indians. In this article, Johnson writes from the perspective of a chief commenting on the desecration of his homeland and encouraging his people to wait for the Europeans self-destruct before waging an attack. In his list of grievances, the chief mentions that "when the sword and the mines have destroyed the natives, [the Europeans] supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from some distant country to perish here under toil and torture" (297). Raising the prospect of victorious reacquisition, he says commands: "[let us] reign once more in our native country" (298). In these examples, the injustice of the abuse and the justice of the future victory are a question of nativeness and the perspective of the speaker: "applied to one’s own place or person," as Johnson accomplished through his adoption of an alter ego, "native" is an expression of pride and belonging as well as a claim to the moral high road: I belong here, this is my country, and you are "useless," if not consummately pernicious, foreigner. Johnson allows the term “native” to be used by an Indian chief exactly as he himself would use it, acknowledging that everyone belongs in the land of their nativity.

Olaudah Equiano on "Native"

In the first chapter of Equiano's The Interesting Narrative he uses the term "native" to mean people originally from Africa or originally from a part of Africa. This is consistent with our second definition listed above ( adj. being from a place originally--in the case of humans, from birth; for other species, those that are historically indiginous to a place). Example: "The natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. The necessary habit of decency was with us a part of religion." (Equiano, 41). Previously positive and negative connotations of the term "native" have been discussed. Equiano is quite nuetral with this term using it simply to address the African population which he comes from or to address other populations native to a part of Africa as he explains cultural customs and traditions.

Equiano also uses the term "countrymen" or "countryman" seemingly interchangeably with native. Examples: "One day, when we had a smooth sea, and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen...somehow made through the nettings" (Equiano 59). "I coud not help expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen" (Equiano 57). Countrymen is used exclusively when Equiano is personally relating to other natives of Africans. Native is a term expressing a much more detached perspective.

He also uses the word native when he talk about the Native Americans when he says, "The natives are well made and warlike; and they particularly boast pf having never been conquered by the Spaniards" (207). He seems to use it when discussing his countrymen or people native to the Americas but he never seems to refer to the people from England or any of the more "civilized" countries as natives.

Wordsworth's Usage of "Native"

Examples of the word "native" in Wordsworth's texts seem to illustrate the same usage found in Johnson: "Nor let this necessity of producing immediate pleasure be considered as a degradation of the Poet's art. It is far otherwise. It is an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgement the more sincere, because not formal, but indirect; it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves." This echoes the idea in Johnson that whatever innate ability exists in a man, stripped of artifice or acquired through learning, is more impressive than any other dignity that could be ascribed to him.

In the collection Lyrical Ballads itself, there is an interesting connection between the word "native" and the idea of ownership or entitlement that is perhaps nascent but not as clear in Johnson. In "The Female Vagrant," "native" appears twice: first, "Till then he hoped his bones might there by laid,/ Close by my mother in their native bowers" (line 60); second, "Green fields before us and our native shore" (line 102). In both these instances, "native" is used as an adjective to modify a noun in a noun phrase, which is further specified and emphasized with the possessive pronouns "their" and "our." These lines, when read next to and in conjunction with the pathetic and contradictory "through tears that fell in showers/ Glimmer'd our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!" (line 62-3), bring to the word "native" the sense of "what is ours naturally" or "what is rightfully ours by birthright." The nostalgia and sense of righteous outrage and despair comes from the idea of having what's native to one taken away.

Burke's use of "Native"

Edmund Burke's use of the word makes reference to a people's being indigenous to an area. Burke does not use the word with any negative implications that might imply an inferiority of peoples.

In Burke's Speech on Mr. Fox's East India Bill he uses the word native to describe the indigenous people of India. It is obvious his use of the word is free from negative connotation since Burke speaks very highly of the people in regard to their being, for ages, civilized and cultivated by all the arts of polished life. A people not savage, or Barbarous, but a people who's civilization, or empire is comparable to the Empire of Germany. A people comparable to those in Europe. (369)

Pejorative Usage of "Native"

Of the negative connotations associated with the word Native, Williams writes: "the negative use of native to describe the inferior inhabitants of a place subjected to alien political power or conquest, or even of a place visited and observed from some supposedly superior standpoint, became general. It was particularly a term for 'non-Europeans' in the period of colonialism and imperialism" (Williams 215). This is an important distinction. Williams acknowledges that historically, "natives" (in this negative usage) has referred to non-Europeans since a significant portion of colonization has been led by Europeans and the colonized have been non-Europeans.

"Native" and exoticism

Besides these clearly negative and positive connotations, "native" has also been used negatively with a positive spin denoting "exotic." Ex. In the first episode of the HBO series "Band of Brothers," when the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Regiment find out that they are going to European instead of the Pacific theater, they express jealousy of their fellow soldiers who will be going to the Pacific:

Muck: Right now, some lucky bastard's headed for the South Pacific. He's gonna get billeted on some tropical island, sit under a tree with six naked native girls, helping him cut up coconuts, so he can hand feed them to the flamingos. Anonymous soldier: Flamingoes are mean; they bite. Sisk: So do the naked native girls. Perconte: With any luck.

This interaction shows that these men view the natives as inherently different from the girls with whom they are used to interacting. "Naked" and "native" are joined almost as a compound word, and they are assumed to behave in a sexually-exciting way--foreign and exotic, and therefore erotic (and erotic in ways that perhaps the women with whom these soldiers have been were not willing to be, since Sisk claims that they bite). Just as savagery or idealized innocence gets exaggerated and evoked by others with the word native, so these men create a fantasy based on these women's "otherness."

A few of Dictionary.com's definitions of "exotic":
1) "of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized" - Of course, in the example given from Band of Brothers, this would be backwards, in that the women are "foreign" to the land where the men came from and thus to the men themselves, making them the natives of the land to which the men are travelling. Interesting to note the part about them being "not fully naturalized." May explain why the men expected the women to act in a demeaning manner.

2) "of a uniquely new or experimental nature" - Once again, may explain the reasoning behind why the men expect the women to act in a more sexual manner; they are expected to be "experimental," possibly open to things other women would not be.

3) "of, pertaining to, or involving stripteasing" - Another example of exotic or native women as sexual.

Contemporary Usage

Problematizing the idea of "being from a place originally": The Simpsons and the New Yorker: In the Simpson's episode "Much Apu About Nothing" where Apu, under stress and pressure from an anti-outsider proposition being debated in Springfield, gains his citizenship, the tension and confusion between these two definitions is made clear in a conversation between Homer, Lisa and Apu:

Apu: Today, I am no longer an Indian living in America. I am an Indian-American. Lisa: You know, in a way, all Americans are immigrants. Except, of course Native Americans. Homer: Yeah, Native Americans like us. Lisa: No, I mean American Indians. Apu: Like me.

This conversation illustrates the confusion generated by a term like "native" that means different things in different contexts. This seems to hit at an important point: it's difficult to use "native" to describe who belongs and who doesn't, and its usage is often contradictory at best.

A New Yorker article elaborates on this point, citing contemporary causes of this confusion: "Instantaneous global communications, cell phones, the free flow of commercial data, an untethered Internet, and the unprecedented ease of travel have erased the once rigid distinction between what is native and what is foreign" (55, "The Spymaster," January 21, 2008).

"Native" status as an affirmation of authenticity or savoir-faire: Most recently, "native" seems to be being used positively to express authenticity and insider knowledge. In "The Spymaster," a January 21, 2008 New Yorker article on Mike McConnell and the U.S. intelligence community, the need for "native" speakers of Arabic is highlighted: "The intelligence community is literally incapable of understanding the enemy, because substantial security barriers have been placed in the path of Americans who are native speakers of Arabic and other critical languages" (46). Being a "native speaker" is obviously a very positive linguistic trait ("the U.S. government ranks language proficiency on a zero-to-five scale, in which five is the equivalent of a native speaker" (56)), but being a native of elsewhere makes these ideal speakers suspect of other, less ideal traits.

In a March 7, 2008 lecture at Northwestern University, comparativist, postcolonial and third-world feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak made a statement that smacked assumptions about native knowledge upside the head. Talking about fluency in other languages, she mentioned that she had been denied a fellowship at Cornell because she wasn't a "native speaker," and said that no matter how good one gets at a second (or third) language, "you will never be a native speaker--better, perhaps, than a native speaker, but never a native speaker."

see also Trailsylvania example below

Forms of "native"


1) n, The characteristic of being native.

TrailSylvania: "Let yourself be inspired by the nativeness of a country, which doesn't even seem to fit into Europe at first sight- meet hospitable people, who still provide themselves with food, discover a fascinating landscape, which is unique in Europe and betake yourself to the heels of a moved history." Uses the country's "nativeness" as a selling point. Compares it to Majorca, Toscana, and Barcelona, saying that it's a completely different experience. Trying to sell "native" as a vacation... Instead of going to see landmarks in Rome or Paris, come see our nativeness!! Also, they advise you to "avail yourself of our 22 years of experience in Romania, many indigenous and geographical partners and co-operators..." This almost makes it seem like their "indigenous" (native) people are also part of your vacation, like they're part of a display for your entertainment. I just thought this was all kind of weird.


1) adv, The act of doing something in a native way.


1) a. Chiefly U.S. The attitude, practice, or policy of protecting the interests of native-born or existing inhabitants against those of immigrants; spec. the ideology of the Native American party (now hist.).

b. Anthropol. Return to or emphasis on indigenous customs and traditions, esp. in opposition to those introduced from elsewhere.

2) a. Philos. The belief that some knowledge and ideas are innate, rather than acquired by learning.

b. Psychol. and Linguistics. Originally: the theory that in the development of language an inherent connection exists in the mind between sound and sense. Later: the theory that certain capacities or abilities (esp. those of sense perception or language) are innate, rather than acquired by learning.

from OED

The image below of the flag of the Know Nothing Party presents an interesting usage of Native coinciding with Samuel Johnson's (previously mentioned) notion of native as a positive title which valorizes people who claim some sort of ownership of their country or land. Interestingly, the phrase "Native Americans" in a modern day context refers to the peoples inhabiting America before it was colonized by European colonists. Also, the term foreign as seen on the flag is a common antonym to Native as mentioned below in the "opposites" section.

Nativism is displayed prominently in the Scorcese film "Gangs of New York" in which one of the main characters, Bill the Butcher, controls the streets of 19th century New York attempting to keep immigrants from gaining power. His quarrel with the immigrants is ironic considering that his forefathers are immigrants, which brings up the question how long does someone's bloodline have to inhabit a place before they can be considered 'natives'. Gangs of New York (opening natives vs. immigrants skirmish)

Flag of the American Know Nothing Party

Word Plays

Native is frequently associated with the words "country" and "land" (native country, native land) as Raymond Williams has also pointed out in his chapter in Keywords on "Native". These word pairings utililize the second usage of native in our above definition ("To be from a place originally..."). When paired with the words country and land, native is associated with a geographical place and the perceived culture and customs of a country or land. When refering to one's native country one might be conveying a sense of national pride. One may also refer to a person's native country or native land in a negative way. When paired with country or land, native can convey an idea similar to native as inferior colonized peoples (as previously discussed) except here the land or nation in a broader sense is what is being refered to as inferior and colonized.

1) Native American
2) [place] native (ex: California native)
3) native language
4) native speaker

1) Foreign (as in a "foreign place", or calling a person "a foreign"; also, foreigner in place of "a foreign")


1) Nature/Natural

OED:(Contrasted with art.) In a person's speech, writing, drawing, etc.: fidelity or close adherence to nature; naturalness; (apparent) lack of artifice.

The use of nature in conjunction with native can best be understood by coming at it as Johnson did. Native is inherent. It is what is present at birth. This includes everything from place of birth, to character traits, like Shakespeare native talent (according to Johnson). When speaking of character traits, however, the word native is contestable, in (at least) two different ways. The first is that it cannot be proven an individual is born with a character trait. The second refers to the character traits imposed upon natives by Europeans. Native means they are naturally savage, uncivilzed, etc. Perception projects character traits that aren't in reality natural to the native.

Native, Nature, and Man

These three keywords are all tied together in the idea of a State of Nature. In Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, he posits that in the State of Nature, men will tend to act towards their native or brutish impulses, each fending for himself. He says that "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man." Each man, in this state, is given the natural right to perform any action necessary to preserve his own safety and liberty, and he describes life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (taken from Wikipedia)

2) Art

OED: Human skill as an agent, human workmanship. Opposed to nature. An industrial pursuit or employment of a skilled nature; a craft, business, profession.

Native and nature cannot be mentioned without the concept, "art" coming up. The first OED definition highlights the fact that what is native in a person (such as Johnson's reference to Shakespeare native talent), is not art. Art is learned. What is native is inherent. This leads me to question the concept of Native American Art. This, of course, is referring to art created by the first group of people to inhabit a the united states, but it makes me think: Is art necessarily learned? If so, then how did art originate? If the person is born with the ability to create art, then why is art to be considered not native, why would Johnson make that distinction? This refers to the second line of definition from the OED. Nature can be refiend into, "skilled nature". Oxymoron. Can something be natural after being changed, even if it be for the better? Further, if two natives mingle, are they still native? For example, if the native language from one country mingles with the native language of another, are they still native? Most likely not. But eventually, it will be. When does art cease to be art and become natural, native?

3) Racial

OED: Belonging to, or characteristic of, race.

In The Idler No. 81 (entitled "European Oppresion in America"), Johnson writes of the European invaders who took the land from the natives in the Americas. On page 296 he writes, "...and when the sword and mines have destroyed the natives, they supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from some distant country to perish here under toil and terror." In this the natives described are not of the same race (color) as those who are brought to take there place; the replacements are natives of another land. Johnson's use of 'natives' here therefore showcases the distinction that the natives of one place have different racial characteristics than those of another place. This cluster speaks more of the physical differences (appearance, geographical origin) between people than cultural ones, as two people of the same race who are natives of the same place could have the same general culture (this can be seen in daily life in America).

4) Society

OED: The state or condition of living in association, company, or intercourse with others of the same species; the system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals for the purpose of harmonious co-existence or for mutual benefit, defence, etc.

5) Culture

OED: A particular form or type of intellectual development. Also, the civilization, customs, artistic achievements, etc., of a people, esp. at a certain stage of its development or history. (In many contexts, esp. in Sociology, it is not possible to separate this sense from sense 5a.)

Equiano dicusses the customs of African peoples in his narrative. On page 41, he states, "I have before remarked, that the natives of this part of Africa are extremely cleanly. This necessary habit of decency was with us a part of religion..." His wording here (in particular his choice to call the people here 'natives') helps drive home what he seems to be one of his main points or beliefs - that the inhabitants of Africa are just as human as the civilized men of Europe, and are not cultureless savages. He uses 'natives', a word which when used in this sense can often have perjorative or demeaning connotations, and ascribes to it a civilized custom and therefore society (customs being one of the basis for culture).

6) Oppression

"After our vessel was discharged, we soon got her ready, and took in, as usual, some of the poor oppressed natives of Africa" (Equiano 128).

7) Nationalist

"Indeed in nationalism and nationalist there is an applied complexity comparable with that of native (q.v.). But this is often masked by separating national feeling (good) from nationalist feeling (bad if it is another's country, making claims against one's own), or by separating national interest (good) from nationalism (the asserted national interest of another group)" (Williams 214).

Pop Culture References

"the Native"


The Native is a character in the marvel comic Wolverine. According to the Marvel Comic homepage "Virtually nothing was known about the past of the woman called the Native save that she was used as a test subject, code-named Feral, by scientists in the clandestine genetic research organization Weapon X, possibly at the same time that the mutant adventurer Wolverine was implanted with the metal Adamantium. At some point she escaped her captors and lived alone for years in the mountains of British Columbia in Canada, spending some of that time sharing a cabin with fellow escapee Wolverine." Marvel.com

The Native is a love interest of Wolverine and is constantly being captured for tests by a "genetic research organization". Also, the Native is given the code name "Feral" (by the research company) like the term for a wild, out of control, agressive cat. In the image above the Native is shown as overly agressive and somewhat sexually exocticized. Additionally her skin is quite dark.

Interestingly and importantly, "the Native" was in the Wolverine Marvel comic as recently as 2004.