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Keep Hopi Alive

By Garance Franke-Ruta
On a day when the Hillary Clinton campaign has been circulating comments charging Barack Obama with "the most shameless piece of potential plagiarism that I have ever seen" for his newly released economic plan's similarity to her own, a debate on the origins of certain memorable phrases in Obama's Super Tuesday election night speech has broken out online.

It's a debate that's not so much raging as quietly being carried on over an electronic glass of wine at the virtual equivalent of a Century Club luncheon that is New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg's blog. Nevertheless: Adam Gopnik, author of "Paris to the Moon," and Hertzberg, author of the New Yorker's "Comment" column, have been playing a neat round of intellectual badminton over the origins of the phrase "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Gopnik, a skeptic, writes: "If you Google Obama's wonderful line 'We are the ones we've been waiting for,' it's credited right and left, and going back to the nineties, as a bit of Hopi Indian wisdom.... frankly, I doubt that it can be a true Hopi aphorism, unless in some very different form, since I suspect the grammar works only in English. (You couldn't say it in French, for instance, so far as I can figure.) I wonder who really did invent it, and where B.O. ... found it?"

What follows is an amusing exchange on how to properly render the phrase in French. The Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias gets in on the action, too, though via a different route, as part of his latest round of criticizing the National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg, who described the Obama phrase as "some Native American spiritualism warmed up for New Age audiences."

While the phrase is widely credited to the Hopi elders, there's also a much clearer and more likely route into Obama's speech than the inspirational greeting cards that tend to quote it. (The Obama campaign, queried by e-mail, had no reply.) Author Alice Walker's 2006 book takes the phrase as its title: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness.

Walker, of course, is a favorite of Obama-endorser Oprah Winfrey, whose breakout film role came in the 1985 adaptation of Walker's "The Color Purple," and who, in 2007, produced a stage adaptation of the book in Chicago. It's also a phrase popularized by trainers at progressive organizing camps, such as Camp Wellstone, where it has been, in particular, a rallying cry for women.

Progressive religious leaders have also touted the phrase: It titled a speech given by evangelical leader Jim Wallis at Stanford in 2004: "Building Global Justice: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For."

Indeed, what was most striking about the phrases in Obama's Super Tuesday speech, suddenly under discussion again, was not their origin, but the way they seemed selected to ring out to Democratic female voters steeped in the mantras of self-reliance. "What will the women of the future remember about this era of feminists and women's activists?" asked Peggy Flanagan, a trainer for Wellstone Action, in a 2006 interview. "I hope they'll remember that we are the ones we've been waiting for." She's hardly the only Democratic woman to have argued as much over the years.

The phrase is just the latest in a growing list of stock phrases from progressive history given new life in Obama's speeches. Just as Obama has popularized "Fired Up! Ready to Go!" -- the call and response chant of the South Carolina NAACP -- and "Yes We Can!" -- the English translation of the United Farm Worker's "Sí Se Puede" -- on Super Tuesday he brought out the mantra credited to the Hopis and also the idea that "we are the change that we seek," a sentiment given prominence in women's literary and feminist circles in a much-circulated 2004 Jane Fonda speech. Said Fonda, in "The New Feminism: Reuniting the Head, the Heart & the Body": "Women have never yet had a chance in all of history to make a revolution. But if we're going to lead, we have to become the change that we seek."

A fitting tag line for a man seeking the votes of women in the contests that followed.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 13, 2008; 7:15 PM ET
Categories:  The Debate Rages On...  
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If you combine this remark from former NFL Cardinals coach Dennis Green:

"They are who we thought they were!"


"We are the ones we've been waiting for."

you get

"They are who we thought we are we've been waiting for."

which makes less sense than we thought they did, if that were possible. :•)

Posted by: copynp | February 15, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

GOOD GRIEF. Yes, Maria Shriver DID use it in her speech for barack Obama at an event in Los Angeles. You know, Maria Shriver? Arnold's wife? Any discussion here goes to show how desparate people get when they try to find something wrong with Senator Obama.
I think the text of the whole free verse is extremely applicable:

The Hopi Elders Speak

We Are the Ones
We've Been Waiting For

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.

Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.

And there are things to be considered:

Where are you living?

What are you doing?

What are your relationships?

Are you in right relation?

Where is your water?

Know your garden.

It is time to speak your Truth.

Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.

Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we've been waiting for.

Posted by: sheridan1 | February 14, 2008 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Waddling paleface duckperson speak with forked tongue. Promise wampum but bring abortion, alternative-lifestyler & social worker in "tear bag." Like, ugh!

Posted by: sawargos | February 14, 2008 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Well, I believe Hillary is plagiarizing Rudy's campaign. She's all about the big states (even going so far as stating that a lot of states don't matter), and she is using his:

Hillary - "I'm tested. I'm ready. Let's make it happen."

Rudy - "Tested. Ready. Now."

Posted by: mcmahon10 | February 14, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

This is a dumb arguement..

Posted by: TennGurl | February 14, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

good lord-- what a tempest in a teapot...a mountain from a molehill!

That phrase reminds me of the ?Talmudic: "If not now when? If not me, who? If I am not for myself, whom am I for?" That one sounds far better in includes: "If I am only for myself..."

There's nothing new under the sun. Not one person I know votes based on their preferred cliche...

In RI, we like the refrain: vote early--vote often.

Never let a death certificate stop someone from voting.

Posted by: msnomir | February 14, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

It's not as catchy as in english, but as a "bilingue" I'd have gone, in plainest form, for "Nous sommes ceux que nous avons attendu"

Those "intellectuals" from the New Yorker were way off the mark. This sure lends great credibility to the doubts about the Hopi origin of the phrase...

Posted by: henni.ouahes | February 14, 2008 4:28 AM | Report abuse

As a native French speaker, I would translate the phrase "We are the ones we've been waiting for" by:

«Nous sommes ceux (et celles) que nous attendions». I've added the feminine form for political correctness. We're talking about the Democrats after all.

Posted by: bouchecl | February 14, 2008 3:05 AM | Report abuse

Nous sommes ceux que nous avions attendus, non?

Posted by: Reader4 | February 14, 2008 12:33 AM | Report abuse

I didn't hear him use the term until after Maria Shriver used it the day she endorsed Barack.

Posted by: bivouac9 | February 14, 2008 12:18 AM | Report abuse

Are you saying that's not true for Biden?

Posted by: JakeD | February 13, 2008 11:09 PM | Report abuse

JakeD idiocy is what I wait for. And I'm never disappointed!

Posted by: RyanMcC1 | February 13, 2008 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Or as my mother used to remind me, "God helps those who help themselves."

Posted by: TomJx | February 13, 2008 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Tom Hayden (Jane Fonda's ex) used the line in his recent endorsement of Obama:
Is Barack the one we have been waiting for? Or is it the other way around? Are we the people we have been waiting for? Barack Obama is giving voice and space to an awakening beyond his wildest expectations, a social force that may lead him far beyond his modest policy agenda. Such movements in the past led the Kennedys and Franklin Roosevelt to achievements they never contemplated. (As Gandhi once said of India's liberation movement, "There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.")

If you find to know the original source, go back a few thousand years. I expect it's in every major spiritual movement: do we wait for a messiah, or is it us?

Or do a Pogo and reverse it: "We have met the enemy, and it is us."

Posted by: TomJx | February 13, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Plagiarism sunk Joe Biden's 1988 campaign . . .

Posted by: JakeD | February 13, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

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