Friday, November 25, 2011

the name game

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Sometimes Shakespeare can be dead wrong.  Well, at least, when it comes to political labels in the 21st century.

This past month I hit two of those speed bumps.  With the use of “Indian” and “American.”

We all know that the people Columbus encountered in the New World were not inhabitants of the East Indies -- as he thought.  And, despite popular myth, Columbus’s use of the word “Indian” had nothing to do with the subcontinent of India.

Columbus was simply lost.  And like a lot of men, he was not going to let a little lack of knowledge get in the way of his conclusions.  To him, the residents lived on the islands of the East Indies and were thus Indians.  And China was just around the corner.

The term survived for many reasons.  The primary reason is that the “Indians” had no word for the people who then populated North and South America -- as they would come to be called. 

They were Inca, Maya, Sioux, Olmec, Crow, and numerous other groupings.  The concept that they were part of some collective was as foreign to them as the term "European" would have been to the Spanish.

”Indian” was nothing more than a short-hand term for all of the tribes who had preceded the wave of invading European tribes.

I stumbled into this naming game with my reference to the work I do with the school for the children of migrant workers (party on).  I wrote: “The party was to celebrate the opening of the Indian school where I donate a bit of my time.”

A couple of readers asked (politely) if I was being insensitive using the word “Indian.”  Not really, I replied.  I was using a term that most of my readers would recognize.  We call it communication.

I must confess that I have seriously flirted with using some of the alternative politically correct phrases.  After all, none of us want to purposely give offense.  But none of the alternatives are an improvement.  At least, for a writer.

”Native American” sounded like a possibility.  Until, I realized it was even more nonsensical than "Indian.”  Anyone born in either North or South America is a native American.  And that could not possibly be what people wanted the term to mean.

”Indigenous peoples” is another popular candidate.  Probably because it sounds so Latin.  But it is as flawed as “Native American.”   

“Indigenous” means “produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment.”  No one is indigenous to the Americas.  Every person came from somewhere else.  And, even as anthropologists cannot answer the question of which tribes replaced other tribes, no one has any idea who arrived first.

The Canadians have an option that is very seductive and clever.  “First Nations.”  It recognizes primacy and diversity while building a progressive historical bridge.  And I was almost convinced to use it.  Until I tried to apply it.

The term works well as an abstraction.  But try using it as a personal label.  What do you call a person from one of the First Nations?  A First National.  All of a sudden we sound as if we are talking about banks.

And what about the fact that many of the “First Nations” were not first at all.  They conquered other tribes.  Would they then be “Not-Quite-First Nations?”  Or simply "The Nations That Got Here Before You Did?"

The problem is all of these terms are merely Euro-centric concoctions that carry their own political baggage. 

Most Indians I have encountered seem to prefer being recognized by their tribal names.  But that can be problematic, as well.

The Indians at the migrant worker school are primarily Mixtec.  And they like that name.  But there are also Purépecha at the school.  And neither tribe wants to be labeled as the other.

I suppose I could refer to the school as "The Mixtec and Some Purépecha School."  But most of my readers are not familiar with those terms.  "Indian" they know.

Between my first and second years of law school, I worked in a lumber mill.  The guy who worked beside me, Billie, was one of our labor negotiators.  He was also an Indian.

One day he told me a story that happened during the last contract negotiations.  He needed to establish a power position.  So, he used liberal guilt as his ally. 

He told the lawyers who were representing the employer that he was tired of them referring to him as an Indian.  During his lecture, he repeatedly referred to Russel Means and AIM.

I started laughing along with him because the Ivy League-educated lawyers were so intimidated by an enraged minority that they completely missed his joke.  AIM, of course, stands for American INDIAN Movement.

When he stopped laughing, he said: "Look.  I'm  a Cherokee from Oklahoma.  My ancestors probably cut trees in Georgia.  Before then, who knows where they came from?  I now work with timber in Oregon.  What should I be called?  I am happy with American.  Oregonian.  Indian.  Because we all know what those words mean.  Simple."

I thought of Billie when my readers asked about my sensitivity.

Until someone comes up with a term that makes more sense, I am satisfied to use the simple term my readers will most likely recognize.

Tomorrow.  Who is an American?


Norm Kwallek said...

Nice post, it is something I have thought about with no real conclusion. I have gone with indigenous only because there are a billion people in Asia who had first call on the Indian tag and they have happy feet, I run into them everywhere.  

Theresa in Mérida said...

The term I hear in used in Mexico is indígena or indígenas, the indigenous people. regards,Theresa

Felipe Zapata said...

You've left my head reeling with all this PC blather. Just call them what they are: Redskins.

Francisco said...

When I was working at Ford Motor Overseas Product Engineering Office (I was not an engineer, I did support work for them.) I came upon a globe of the world with the country names spelled out the way they referred to their own nation.  It was an eye opener for me. Interesting post, another one I really enjoyed.
P.S. I thought the name Crow was the name the Europeans used instead of their true name which translates to Sparrow Hawks.

Felipe Zapata said...

Book recommendation: Empire of the Summer Moon a history by S.C. Gwynne, just published this year and available via the Kindle. The Indians, and it did not appear to make much difference which tribe you were looking at, were mind-bogglingly brutal. Getting scalped was routine. Virtually all women prisoners were gang-raped, and it didn't matter how old or young the female was. Noses and ears would be cut or burned off. These treatments were routine. Suicide was always preferable to being captured by American Indians. The Comanches were about the worst of the lot, but other tribes weren't much nicer.

I chuckle when the "sensitive" among us say we should not use the word Indian because it makes them feel bad.

NWexican said...

My daughter goes with, "peeps" I on the other hand like to go with the land from which the person comes, therefore, "dirt peeps" That is of course unless said person is born on a boat then " water peeps"

Steve Cotton said...

In truth, the Indians of India did not use that term until after Columbus made his mistake. There was no such political entity until centuries later. But it is now what it is.

Steve Cotton said...

What about the "air peeps?"

Steve Cotton said...

My experience is that the tribes dislike indigenous as much as they dislike Indian.  They both are invader terms.  It is politics.  Not unlike the silly dispute in Te States between the use of the term Democratic or Democrat to describe one of the parties.

Steve Cotton said...

My British friends (or those that existed prior to the Cameron sensitivity) used an even more jarring distinction: East Indians and Red Indians.  Right up there with the more modern version: dot or feather.

Steve Cotton said...

Good point, Francisco.  Every nation does odd things with the names of other countries.  My motto is: No offense meant; no offense taken.

Steve Cotton said...

I have been meaning to pick up that book after you recommended it this summer. 

Babsofsanmiguel said...

Most people I know in academia here refer to the different groups as "indigenous". When you use the term "Indian", I grit my teeth.  Only because the Indian schools in the USA were all about changing customs, denying their customs and "Americanizing the children ", which also makes me grit my teeth.  I read the journal of a relative who taught in one of those schools near Farmington, NM and was horrified at the lack of sensitivity. 
Hopefully your "Indian school" isn't about those things.

Felipe Zapata said...

Babs: I hope you read my comment just below yours.

NWexican said...


Joanne said...

Members of First Nations in Canada generally call themselves First Nations, as in "I am First Nations" not First National.  Or they use the term Aboriginal.  The word Indian is seen as highly pejorative.  Some refer to themselves by their band name, so "Cree" or "Mi'kmaq".

 I have no problem using a term that they wish me to use.  Historically they may have been ruthless and violent and I am not concerned with hurt feelings but rather wish to extend the same courtesy to all people that I wish to be treated with.  Hence, even though some people say we are all Americans because we all come from The Americas, I prefer to be called Canadian.  The country to the south of Canada is America and its people are Americans, but not me.  Canada and my new home of Mexico have enough troubles of their own, we do not need to be lumped in with Americans and inherit any of your troubles.  But maybe that is a topic for tomorrow's post?

Huffnpuffinc said...

Wow!!!!! I think your readers have to much time on their hands. Tina

ANM said...

What we call one another is important.  You buttheads know that.


Steve Cotton said...

Close to tomorrow's topic. But I am still drafting.

Steve Cotton said...

I have not sat through the full school curriculum. I know the students are getting the same type of courses as their neighbors in Pinal Villa. Arithmetic. Reading. History. How to be a good Mexican citizen. And a lot of the children are proud that their academic skills are better than the local children's. So, I guess part of the education process is turning all Mexican children into citizens of Mexico. And that does not bother me. Had the English not conquered my ancestor's home, I would probably be chasing sheep through the glen and living on cockles rather than irritating people over some of the silliness of political labels.

I suspect a number of the migrant worker children have the same dreams as all Mexican children -- of being more successful than their parents. More power to them.

Steve Cotton said...

But now you are simply being kind.

Jonna said...

Mostly I try and accomodate people by using whatever term they prefer.  I'm with Joanne in that I try and give the same courtesy to others that I would like in return.  However, I do think that many people get way too bent out of shape about names and words.  When I read the diatribes about politically incorrect phrasing I often am saying to myself "get over it".  There are so many more things to worry yourself about that it seems kind of ridiculous.  

As to the British distinction between Indians.  I have 2 friends who are a couple, one is an American Indian (how's that for non PC? but it is what he calls himself) and the other is a Hindu.  They refer to themselves as the 'dot and feather' couple.  

Steve Cotton said...

Some people care about different things. Had I not been chided so much about the use of "Indian," this post would never have existed. Of course, not one chider was Indian.

Steve Cotton said...

I agree with the courtesy point.  And it is one I try to follow.  But I know from experience that preferred names vary a lot by individual.  That is easy to accommodate -- once you know what each individual wants to be called.  What gets difficult is people who take themselves too seriously or people who have no dog in any fight who believe they are serious.  And that is why I already like your friends -- even without meeting them.

Laurie Matherne said...

The vast majority of Hondurans are mixed race. They call the native groups, Indios. So do I. When I lived in South Louisiana, the French speaking people called the natives, Sabines. They were not Sabines. They were Houma Indians, as they prefer to be called. Names can be a weird business, indeed. 

NWexican said...

'kay so I what the heck is that in the picture?

Steve Cotton said...

Whatever could you mean?