As indigenous peoples, names and references to our race and ethnic identity are very important – especially in a time when names and pejorative references to Native people are being challenged in popular culture.
Wherever I go, from the reservation to the city, through the halls of academia, from younger to older, to the grassroots, and in social media, I hear numerous discussions and debates around how people choose to identify with certain references, e.g., which word is the most appropriate: Native American? Native? Indian? American Indian? Indigenous?
My task here was to ask several friends and people whom I (and many others) admire what reference they feel most comfortable with.
This discussion varies in our ever-diverse culture. What I’ve learned is we can discuss this for hours on end but, when all is said and done, we call ourselves what we want because it is our choice. In fact, choice is something we did not have or were able to practice throughout the annals of U.S. history.
Each time we choose to elect our own names and references we are empowered. This discussion does not argue that the term ‘Indian’ is better, or that ‘indigenous’ is, or to invalidate being an American or not to be; it is about choice; what we choose as well as how and why we used these names. One thing is certain, we can all agree to reject pejorative references to Native people, e.g. ‘redskins,’ ‘squaw,’ ‘savages,’ etc. This discussion is complex, and I have discovered there is no singular nor simple answer:
So here we go. The people speak, and we must listen.
1. Radmilla Cody
Radmilla Cody is (Diné/Navajo) and African-American. She is a Grammy nominee, a multiple Native American Music Awards winner, an international performer, a former Miss Navajo Nation, and the founder of the “Strong Spirit: Life is Beautiful not Abusive” campaign.
Cody would like to be referred to as ‘Dine/Navajo,’ ‘indigenous’ and ‘Native.’ When asked why this is important to her she states, “I used to refer to myself as ‘Native American,’ but over time I have learned more about colonization and the colonial terms that came with the assimilation process which continues today. We are original people of this so-called USA, therefore we should be acknowledged as such, but also to ourselves as indigenous, as the indigenous backgrounds we identify with; indigenous, or Native of our own territories.. Not the European settlers’ or colonial settlers’ identification of who they think we should be. We must reclaim our identity and stop allowing the settler-colonialists to define who we are.”
2. Bobby Wilson
Bobby Wilson is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota and is most famous for being a member of the five-piece comedy troupe “The 1491s.” Bobby’s work is heavily influenced by his Dakota heritage combined with a lifelong city upbringing. Bobby also appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last year.
“I say Indian a lot,” Wilson said. “I’m around many Natives all the time, and using Indian seems to be universal and others can identify with it.” Bobby also said he understands the confliction Native people have with the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Native American,’ but as he states, “When I say Indian it doesn’t take anything away from me. For some people it may. I’m comfortable with myself and with it.”
He also stated he doesn’t mind being referred to as ‘American Indian,’ and references the National Congress of American Indians and the like, whom use the term ‘Indian.’
I asked him if he rejects any socially acceptable references to Native people. He said, ‘chief.’ Wilson has been called ‘chief’ several times in his life and says it is rooted in racism. He says generally people have a certain idea of what a ‘chief’ looks like and view him in this way. “If you say to someone, ‘draw me a chief,’ I guarantee they will not draw a CEO.”
3. Roxanne Thomas
Roxanne Thomas is Diné (Navajo) and Numa (Paiute). She is currently fulfilling her personal goal of being a full-time caretaker to her son. She has a profession in social work and worked as a mental health provider.
When asked how she refers to herself, Thomas said, “It has changed throughout the years.” She refers to herself mainly as “Diné and Numa-Fallon Paiute/Shoshone Tribe, a.k.a., Navajo and Paiute.” She said she puts more effort into referring to herself by her indigenous tribes and in their indigenous language because, as she stated, “It’s about going back to our original self. Why use names that are give to us?”
When asked how she refers to all Native people, Thomas said, “It’s changing, too. I’m using ‘indigenous’ and ‘Native’ more, and before that I used ‘Native American.’” She also states she is comfortable with using ‘Native American,’ but as she said: “It is a name that has been given to us.” She also states that ‘Native American’ can be anyone who is born in the United States. As for the term ‘Indian,’ she said, “Colonizers used the word ‘Indian’ or ‘American Indian’ and this could describe Indian citizens from the country India.” She states she is not protective of that term because it is important we know whom we are and where we are from. She to teaches her 3-year-old son how to say his four different tribes he is born of in the indigenous language.
4. Douglas Miles
Douglas Miles is the owner at Apache Skateboards and is San Carlos Apache/Akimel O’odham. Douglas is an artist, designer, curator, muralist, and public speaker. He utilizes art as social practice to motivate and inspire positive processes.
Miles said, “I refer to myself as American Indian.” He said he grew up in an era where that was the common term. “People look at it in both ways; ‘Indian’ is from India, and when this country was ‘discovered’ the people were looked at as godly people (Indios). I also refer to myself as ‘Native American.’ I’m comfortable with both of them.” Doug then goes on to say, “What would be the better title is ‘First Americans’ because, in reality, we are the first Americans.”
Miles also spoke of love of the land that is now the continental United States. “We are also Americans, and we love America. Natives serve at a higher rate in the military because Native people know in their heart this is their country and it will always be. They will stand up and fight for the land. It’s not really about American patriotism, but it’s for the love of the land.”
Miles added he does not feel comfortable with “anthropological terms, because they weren’t written for us. Words such as ‘nomadic,’ ‘hunter gather,’ ‘urban Indian,’ ‘rural Indian,’ ‘reservation Indian,’ – they don’t accurately explain the Native experience in 2015.”
5. Chase Iron Eyes
Chase Iron Eyes (Lakota Sioux) is co-founder of Last Real Indians, a media resource for original indigenous content. Chase is a Tribal Economic Consultant, Lakota Peoples Law Project Staff Attorney and 7th Generation fund grant recipient.
Iron Eyes said he refers to himself in his original Lakota language (Oyate Ikce), most people understand it as Sioux. He uses the term Sioux to describe himself at times because that is what people generally understand.
Iron Eyes said when he named his blog and media outlet originally, “The Last Real Indian” (as he was the only writer) he was speaking from a place of wanting to voice his thoughts of the injustices in Native country in an uncensored manner. He felt “The Last Real Indian” was catchy and grabbed the attention of the reader. He wasn’t invalidating other Natives weren’t legitimately ‘Indian,’ but that the under-represented voice of indigenous people must be heard. As more writers were incorporated, they became “The Last Real Indians.” “Anyone can be the last real Indian,” he said.
He said the term ‘Indian’ is that of popular culture, and although it is a debated term, it is one that is commonly used and known. He also believes the term which should be used is ‘original people,’ but the term ‘indigenous’ is very appropriate as well.
Iron Eyes also acknowledged: “Naming is very important because we are the archetypes of our reality, but now we do that in the English language. For those of us who learned English as a first language, things are different because we speak English.”
6. Kyle Blackhorse
Kyle Blackhorse is Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok. Blackhorse, 18, is of the Eagle Tribe and Brown Bear Clan of the Tlingit and Yurok Nations and born for the Black Streak Wood People and Edgewater of the Navajo. Blackhorse and the youngest Native American elected Precinct Committeeperson and State Committeeperson of the Arizona Democratic Party, where he is in involved in the Native American Caucus that provides education, voice and advocacy for Native American people.
He said he refers to himself by his own tribes: Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok, and then by his clans of his tribes. He does not use the term ‘Indian’ because as he said “India is on the other side of the world.”
He stateed he uses the term ‘Navajo’ to explain ‘Diné’ because most know it as such. He also prefers to use the term ‘Native American’ versus ‘American Indian.’ “It is very important to identify ourselves in our way,” he said. Blackhorse said he received this knowledge from his parents and his grandparents who instilled a strong sense of identity in him from a young age. He also stated he refuses to be called, ‘Chief’ because, “I am not a chief of a tribe. It’s a sacred thing.” He added, “I would also like to be called by my name, Kyle.”
Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.