Off the Reservation


Does anyone know—or know how to find out—the etymology of the phrase “off the reservation?” I’ve seen the phrase used here and there in legal writing, and I’m curious about its origins. I have heard two plausible stories:

  • In the time when members of Native American tribes were confined to reservations, to “wander off the reservation” was to be in a place where you should not be.

  • In more recent times, tribal institutions have authority over matters only on the reservation. When tribal agents go “off the reservation,” they have left their geographic jurisdiction and act without even the color of authority.

The first comparison is offensive; the second less so. I’d be interested to know in which sense the phrase was used back when its reference was less ambiguous.


My experience with the phrase has led me to infer origin 2. For example, last week my IR prof said she thought Colin Powell had been “off the reservation” when he characterized the Darfur situation as a genocide, since the term implies an international moral obligation to intervene, and the Bush administration really doesn’t want to send troops to Sudan. So it seems to me that it indicates “speaking without official authorization,” more or less, rather than “saying something one shouldn’t.”


I’d always seen the phrase in the context of spy movies. In that context, it refers to a spy that starts taking actions not authorized or condoned by superiors. That seems to move toward origin 2. On the other hand, that is certainly a “place” you should not be, so origin 1 could work as well.

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