What do you want to be called?

What do you want to be called, American Indian or Native American?

This is the most common question other people ask us. This is not a question we ask each other and there is no pressing need for us to answer it right now. It is a good question to mull over, if only to let others know what we’d rather not be called.

For decades, my stock answer has been that they’re both wrong, so use them interchangeably.

Indians, of course, comes from the lost European sailors who washed up on our shores in 1492 and thought they were in India. The misnomer made it into the legal and historical literature and the U.S. Constitution – in the part about who counts for representation and tax apportionment, “excluding Indians not taxed.” It is used for the body of law called (what else?) federal Indian law.

It could have been worse. Savages was the term used in the Declaration of Independence – “merciless Indian Savages” to be exact. Rather than judges, policymakers, law students and attorneys pouring over federal Indian law, their jurisprudential focus could have been “federal Savage law.” (Or, the worst, Redskins or Squaws, the most popular American pejoratives.)

American Indians has the added complication of invoking the Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, who brought us the renaming of the entire hemisphere. So, what’s the problem? It furthers the impression that we didn’t exist or had no words for “us” or “we” or “her” or “continent” or “hemisphere” before 1492.

Amerindians was devised later as a term for all Indians throughout the Americas and to distinguish Indians here from the ones in India. The choice of some Indianists, mostly in governmental and anthropological businesses, it never gained wide usage, happily.

Native Americans was a well-meant effort from the 1960s to put aside American Indians and to introduce the concept of originating in this place. It carries the same problem as the latter term, implying that we just barely pre-date the coming of the Europeans.

The other problem with Native Americans is that many non-Natives in the United States consider themselves Native Americans. In response to a 1980s questionnaire, a high number of delegates to the Republican and Democratic conventions checked the box marked Native American. Nearly all were non-Natives who said in follow-up calls that they thought the term meant born in the United States. Since they weren’t immigrants, they said they were Native Americans.

A similar term, First Americans, may have been well-intended, but always sounds condescending.

First Americans conveys the misimpression that we arrived 10 minutes before the first boat from Europe. This is what manifest destiny archeologists and anthropologists have been trying to prove for more than a century and are arguing today in the Kennewick Man case – that this hemisphere was totally empty until people started migrating across the Siberian land bridge and by sea from Europe and Polynesia.

These scientists never make the case for migrations from Africa or for early travel by Indians in any direction. Their points are political, not scientific, and intended to prove that we were not native to this place and that “other immigrants” had the right to take the land because it wasn’t really ours.

First Nations is the preferred term in Canada and enjoys some small support in the United States. First Nations people never warmed to Native Canadians or Native Americans, which are commonly heard in Ottawa. L’Indian Rouge, the term of choice in France, was iced by First Nations people, even those on the French side of the English-only campaign in Canada.

The positive aspect of First Nations is that it puts Nations and sovereignty right out front. Its main negative is that it lacks the dimension of individual people.

First has the general problem identified earlier and its broad connotation that what’s ours is theirs. But, there is another way to look at First, particularly when it’s linked with Nations. There is a legal concept of first in time, first in right. In U.S. water law, Indian water rights are considered prior and paramount because we saw it, drank it and splashed in it first.

In Central and South America, the despised word is Indios. There are some who say that the lost Spaniards and Italians were not calling Native Peoples Indios, as in people of India. Rather, this thinking goes, they were saying In Dios, as in “Of God,” and admiring the children of God. This explains, no doubt, why priests and sailors killed and hacked off hands and feet of Indios who would not forsake their “Godless ways.”

I don’t buy the In Dios story and am not a fan of any version of Indian. What set me against Indian was a conversation with the first Englishman I ever met, when I was 12. “Indian,” he asked, “Are you a red Indian or one of our Indians?” It was like a trick question with no right answer.

The word Indios almost derailed the 1976 formation meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples at Port Alberni, Canada. Delegates from Bolivia wanted to use Indios in the organization’s title because, in this hemisphere’s countries where Spanish and Portuguese are the main languages, the word may as well mean dirty dog or peasant. They favored Indios because it identified and united us by our mutual oppression.

Delegates from outside this hemisphere – including the Sami who herd reindeer in Scandinavia and the Maori who ranch cattle in New Zealand – rejected the notion of being part of a group calling itself Indios or Indians. The delegates from Australia told us that they preferred the term Aboriginals for themselves and the new group. They also were emphatic that it was never proper for anyone to call them Aborigines.

Indigenous Peoples stands for tribal peoples worldwide. The United Nations declared the Year (1992) and then the Decade of Indigenous People. This set off a struggle among U.N. members about whether the latter word should be People or Peoples. Some countries wanted the word to be singular, so that it carried no recognition of sovereign or group rights. Others wanted it pluralized so as to include individuals and human rights, along with nations, tribes and groups.

Although it sometimes sounded like a half-s argument, it was an important debate, one which the U.S. government is still having with itself.

Proponents of the word Indigenous like that its root is gene, implying family and relatedness. This cuts the other way, too, suggesting race-based relationships, rather than political status and nationhood. In English, where the word is strongly connected to flora and fauna, Indigenous connotes something closer to plants than to people.

It sounds somehow more dignified in Spanish – Indigena. I am told that the word in Latin America is used interchangeably with Indio, but is more acceptable to Pueblos Indigena because, unlike Indios, it is not synonymous with primitive.

Native Peoples is the term I favor these days. Native places us here, with origins in our lands, and it has the pluralized Peoples for both human beings and sovereignties. Its next best attribute is that it’s not any of the other terms.

So, what do we want to be called? The answer is, we are busy with cultural reclamation. We want to be called by our proper personal and tribal names. We do not want to be called Redskins, Squaws or Savages, or to have any references to us in sports.

We have not gotten around to deciding what we want to call ourselves collectively, but that could change at any time.

Until then, thank you for thinking of us, especially in positive terms, and we’ll get back to you on this.

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What do you want to be called?

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