Friday, February 8, 2013

Native American, or American Indian?

Medicine Crow (Apsaroke)
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I usually have tried to use the term, “Native American,” with the idea that “Indian” is a misnomer resulting from ignorance of the European explorers and continuing out of disregard for an appropriate name for America’s indigenous peoples.  Several years ago while attending a cultural celebration of “Native Americans” at Desoto Caverns in Sylacauga, I was interested to note that the “Native Americans” who were explaining their culture to us repeatedly used the term “Indian” when referring to their people.

The late Tony Hillerman said once that he considered himself a kind of “reverse missionary” in his desire to present the culture of the Navajo and other Indian tribes in his mystery novels. In his memoir, published in 2002, he has this fascinating explanation of why it is preferable to use the tribal name or else use the term Indian rather than Native American:  

I have occasionally used the Native American term. I was cured of that failing when the Smithsonian formally established its division for artifacts from tribal history and named an Indian as its director. He came to Santa Fe, a panel was assembled to discuss affairs of this new division, and I was invited to sit on it. There were nine of us, I believe, representing Hopi, Navajo, Mascalero Apache, Taos, Cherokee, Choctaw, and a couple from the Eastern tribes, which had somehow escaped the total extermination policy of our British ancestors. I sat as Mongrel-American. One of the first questions from the audience was what title did the panelists prefer.

The first respondent asked for a show of hands of those in the audience who hadn't been born in the United States. Two hands appeared. Then all the rest of us here are Native Americans, said the Indian. We are all the offspring of immigrants. He said his people preferred to be identified as Hopis, but if you don't know our tribe, call us Indians. So it went down the row, each respondent preferring his tribal name, saying that Indians call each other Indians if they don't know the tribe. The verdict was unanimous, with the Apache adding they were only thankful that Columbus was looking for India and not Turkey. The Cherokee noted that the real insult was to be called Indigenous People. Since the Western Hemisphere had no native primates from which humanity descended, that suggested we'd evolved from something else - perhaps coyotes - and were not really human. The Navajo concluded this discussion by proposing that all be happy Columbus hadn't thought he'd landed on the Virgin Islands - a sample of the sense of humor which makes the Dineh my favorite folks.  (From Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir, by Tony Hillerman, pp. 273-274)

Politically correct terminology often comes from academic circles where people are at pains to correct past offenses.  Sometimes, as in this case, those who come up with politically correct terminology don’t bother to consult the people whom they intend to label with more appropriate titles.  It is as if we have yet another situation of the elite explaining to the poor natives what they should be called.  For now, I’ll trust Tony Hillerman on this one.



  1. Very interesting, thank you for this! I guess it just goes to show the danger of labels. We really have to allow others to choose their own labels in creating their identities and then be willing to use that to describe them.

  2. A similar situation exists with disability groups. "Physically challenged," "hearing loss," and the crowning shame, "sensory impaired."

    A physically challenged person is an NFL linebacker when the ball is snapped.

    A person born deaf hasn't lost anything.

    A previous president of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind delighted in using "sensory impaired." But I wondered if AIDB has programs for smell-impaired, touch-impaired or taste-impaired.


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