Published on August 9, 2013 by Amy
So what is it? Indian? American Indian? Native American? First Americans? First People? We all hear different terms but no one can seem to agree on what to call us. In this article I will explore some of the reasons behind these variations on Indian identity.
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I recall that during my freshman year of college at the University of Kentucky in the mid-90s the administration enacted a language code. This code was to be used by the students as a way to communicate in and out of the classroom. The code was intended to help instill sensitivity in the student body and encourage them to refer to ethnic and social groups in a politically correct manner. I wrote a paper about this language code for one of my classes and I think the term “thought police” was used. I was never a big fan of political correctness. While the intention is good (giving people a neutral, non-hostile, set of words and phrases to use when referring to groups of people) I think it instead creates confusion and frustration which in turn increases hostility.
How many times have you heard someone say “Indian” and then correct themselves in a hostile tone, “Oh right, now they want us to call them Native Americans.” Would it surprise you to know that most of the Indians that I know do not like the term Native American? So who comes up with these terms and why?
As the story goes, when Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean he thought he was in India. So naturally he referred to the Natives he met as Indians. Unfortunately for those Natives he was not in India. However, the name Indian has since stuck. Many people considered this problematic and wanted an alternative. After all, Columbus labeled the Natives as Indians based on an incorrect assumption. Also, the term can create confusion because it may be difficult in conversation to differentiate between the Indians of America and the Indians of India. The term American Indian became popular because it helped with this confusion. However, to some this was still not an ideal term. It continued to use “Indian” which had been a somewhat derogatory term throughout US history. In the late 20th century, as political correctness came to the forefront, many of these long standing ethnic terms were abandoned for new neutral terms or phrases which would clean the slate. By using new terms Americans hoped to move away from our history of racial tensions and develop a more harmonious society where our new labels could clearly define who we were and also not open old wounds with old terms. Thus, “Native American” was born.
There is, however, a very obvious problem with this term. Any person born in “America” is a native American. Rush Limbaugh and other staunch conservatives were quick to point this out. Though the intentions were good, the term Native American seemed to cause more problems than it fixed. It created in mainstream Americans a fear that they would look insensitive if they accidently used the wrong term and it made many Americans resentful of Indians for being too sensitive.
Ironically, Indians, or American Indians (whichever you prefer), did not seem interested in changing their name. AIM, the American Indian Movement, did not begin calling itself NAM. The American Indian College Fund did not change its name. Many Indians continue to call themselves Indian or American Indian regardless of what the rest of America and the world calls them. Why?
The reasons are diverse and personal, but there are two popular reasons. The first reason is habit. Many Indians have been Indians all their lives. The Native people of this continent have been called Indian throughout all of post-Columbian history. Why change now? The second reason is far more political. While the new politically correct terms were intended to help ethnic groups by giving them a name that did not carry the emotional baggage of American history, it also enabled America to ease its conscience. The term Native American is so recent that it does not have all the negative history attached. Native Americans did not suffer through countless trails of tears, disease, wars, and cultural annihilation — Indians did. The Native people today are Native Americans not Indians, therefore we do not need to feel guilty for the horrors of the past. Many Indians feel that this is what the term Native American essentially does — it white-washes history. It cleans the slate.
So what? This doesn’t help me know what to call a person.
In the end, the term you choose to use (as an Indian or non-Indian) is your own personal choice. Very few Indians that I know care either way. The recommended method is to refer to a person by their tribe, if that information is known. The reason is that the Native peoples of North America are incredibly diverse. It would be like referring both a Romanian and an Irishman as European. It’s true that they are both from Europe but their people have very different histories, cultures, and languages. The same is true of Indians. The Cherokee are vastly different from the Lakota, the Dine, the Kiowa, and the Cree, but they are all labeled Native American. So whenever possible an Indian would prefer to be called a Cherokee or a Lakota or whichever tribe they belong to. This shows respect because not only are you sensitive to the fact that the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American are an over simplification of a diverse ethnicity, but you also show that you listened when they told what tribe they belonged to.
When you don’t know the specific tribe simply use the term which you are most comfortable using. The worst that can happen is that someone might correct you and open the door for a thoughtful debate on the subject of political correctness and its impact on ethnic identity. What matters in the long run is not which term is used but the intention with which it is used. Terms like “redskin” and “injun” are obviously offensive because of the historical meaning behind them; however, the term “Indian” is increasingly falling back into use. But when used in the wrong context any label can be offensive.