“I was just about to order Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask and then I found that it was all about Native Americans rather than Indians. This is 2012, not 1492……please correct the error. ”
–Reader comment on our blog 7/30/12
We share the reader’s frustration over labels–as does Anton Treuer, who discusses the subject in the book. The excerpt below addresses terms for talking about North America’s first people. We’d love to hear your comments, too.
What terms are most appropriate for talking about North America’s first people?
The word Indian comes from a mistake: on his first voyage to the Americas, Columbus thought the Caribbean was the Indian Ocean and the people there were Indians. The use of the word and assumptions around it are well documented in Columbus’s writings and those of other Spanish officials who accompanied him on the voyage and corresponded with him. Russell Means, Peter Matthiessen, George Carlin, and a few others have claimed that the word Indian is actually derived from the Spanish phrase una gente in Dios (people of God). But Columbus never used that phrase in reference to any people in the Americas. Use of the word Indian had nothing to do with the words in Dios. It was a mislabeling based on Columbus’s confusion about where he was when he first arrived in the Americas—and it stuck, even after the mistake was well known in Europe.
I use the word Indian in this book intentionally and with full knowledge of its shortcomings as a misnomer that gives some people offense. I have no fundamental opposition to what some label as “political correctness,” and in making decisions about labels, I try to use ones that are respectful but also clear. However, the terms native, indigenous, First Nations person, and aboriginal are often ambiguous, equally problematic, and in some cases more cumbersome. I also find Sherman Alexie’s remark resonant: “The white man tried to take our land, our sovereignty, and our languages. And he gave us the word ‘Indian.’ Now he wants to take the word ‘Indian’ away from us too. Well, he can’t have it.”
As much as possible, we should all use tribal terms of self-reference in writing about each tribe: they are authentic and loaded with empowered meaning. Those words (such as Diné, Ho-Chunk, Dakota, Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe) work at the level of tribal discussion, but they sound ethnocentric to members of other tribes. Regardless of all decisions about labels, however, it is most critically important that we respect one another and create an environment in which it is safe to ask any thoughtful question without fear. The only way to arrive at a deeper understanding is to make it acceptable to ask anything you wanted to know about Indians but were afraid to ask and get a meaningful answer rather than an angry admonition.
From Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer