Going Off the Reservation

By | January 15, 2019

[January 15, 2019]  For everything we do in life rules govern how we behave, talk, think and accomplish our missions.  Anytime we fail to do so or go off in an unauthorized direction; there are unpredictable but usually negative consequences.  Going off the reservation is how this is often described.

In early 2007 while in combat north of the city of Baghdad, we had an Infantry squad from the 82nd Airborne Division make an unofficial patrol into Sadr City.  Sadr City was a slum in northern Baghdad and a hotbed of insurgents.  We heard on our radios that an “unknown unit” had gone off the reservation.  The squad’s self-assigned mission upset the timetable for a major offensive, known as Operation Imposing Law, which was to occur at about the same time.

We also use the term ‘going off the reservation’ when agents in a spy agency go on unauthorized assignments.  We read about this in suspense novels and are attracted to it for the excitement and thrills.  But when a spy or military unit or any part of an organization attempts unlawful or unofficial actions, there will be a penalty that reflects negatively on the organization.

Another term that describes the same thing is ‘going rogue.’  Not to be confused with the British use of the sexually suggestive concept, going rogue means to deviate from the officially recognized path of getting the job done.  In American lexicon, both ‘going rogue’ and ‘going off the reservation’ are the same thing and used interchangeably.

I’m aware of the obvious origins of the concept of going off the reservation, and I’m also not against its use.  Originally, this was used to describe American Indians who left U.S. government-established reservations governed by terms of treaties.  The origins of the term, despite its condescension for Native Indians, is useful and no longer descriptive as it was in the 19th century.1

Fortunately, no one was killed or injured when the 82nd Airborne Division’s unit went off the reservation.  It did teach us to coordinate all actions outside our protective defenses and get official approval each time.  Leadership means many things; one of them is not going rogue or going off the reservation.


  1. Some argue for banning the term. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/06/29/326690947/should-saying-someone-is-off-the-reservation-be-off-limits
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

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22 thoughts on “Going Off the Reservation

  1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    In the company of real “men” and real “women” the term has clear meaning and provides a picture of someone going outside mission parameters. That is a great way to note it with few words. “Rogue” however has additional connotations that maybe aren’t spot on. Thanks all.

  2. Roger Yellowmule

    Whackos are everywhere so just be on guard. If you use a term like ‘off the reservation’ someone will be insulted. My job today is, however, to insult as many people as I can. Good training for them. Oh, I’m American Indian and proud of it. For all the other wimpy, pinko, red-shirted Indians like me who don’t like the term, just get a life. Be more like your ancestors.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      I nearly spit my morning milk out my nose when I read your comment. Thanks, Roger Yellowmule. Wow, what a last name. Great.

      1. Wilson Cox

        Eva, if you had said “tea” instead of milk, I would have thought you were a redblooded Englishwoman.

  3. Willie Shrumburger

    Let’s not all get all caught up in the minor-league game of trying to out do each other over a small idea. The point here is that people get out of their lane and need to be helped back into it.

  4. Darryl Sitterly

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused eyebrows to raise, heads to jerk, eyes to roll and political opponents to lick their chops, when she used “off the reservation” in an April 29 CNN interview: “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak.”

    1. Doug Smith

      An ultra-progressive liberal, socialist using it means that it must be okay. People, let’s not get offended on something so trivial.

    2. Scotty Bush

      I agree, get a tough skin. If you can’t take it, go home to mama.

    3. Nick Lighthouse

      Beware of the wussy’s out there. Many are called ‘snowflakes’ in college for a reason. No surprise that I carry a concealed weapon.

  5. Len Jakosky

    I’ve used the quote “going off the reservation” since I was a kid. Maybe it was the Vietnam Vets around me that got it started but I’m more likely to think its just another one of those phrases that has a current meaning different than the past.

  6. Anita

    In its literal and original sense, as you would expect, the term was used in the 19th century to describe the activities of Native Americans:
    “The acting commissioner of Indian affairs to-day received a telegram from Agent Roorke of the Klamath (Oregon) agency, dated July 6, in which he says: ‘No Indians are off the reservation without authority. All my Indians are loyal and peaceable, and doing well.” (Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1878)

    1. Mike Baker

      Interesting that the progressive liberal who wrote the article never really came out to say it was racist, etc. but quoted people who think it is. I guess that is how liberals write today. They wouldn’t want to “offend” anybody, would they? Moral cowardice again on display.

  7. Janna Faulkner

    From the Urban Dictionary:
    “off the reservation”
    Going of the reservation is when certain elements such as spies or assassins either fail to complete an assignment/mission, go on an unauthorized mission, get caught and spill their guts, or go rogue. Usually resutlting in the need to neutralize(kill their ass) the said element.

  8. Army Captain

    Going rogue! They even have movies about it. Great spy novel stuff.

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