People of European descent have seemingly always had trouble naming those that they came into contact with upon first arrival in the already-discovered continent of North America. In the oft told story, Christopher Columbus, believing to have traveled around the world and found himself in the Far East, referred to the people he encountered as “Indians.” (in a fine illustration of how the colonialist victors choose names for others, even the above discoverer’s name has been Anglicized from its Italian original: Cristoforo Colombo.) Indian, and later American Indian, are still the legal definition in US law for all the peoples living here prior to contact. However, since the name began with an error, it rankles many to this day. In the latter half of the twentieth-century, this nomenclature was altered in many textbooks and official documents to read “Native American.” However, this name too has angered many for the same reasons that “Indian” does: it is not a self-defined name, but rather one handed down from the powers that be. Perhaps Native American is more politically correct, but it is still clearly an outsiders’ description. (Ironically, the first usage of the capitalized “Native American” was done so by a group of racist Anglo-Saxon protestants in the 1850’s in an attempt to differentiate themselves from newer Irish and German immigrants.) A further problem is that the word “native” itself also has a number of pejorative usages, including “going native” and is associated in some people’s minds with being primitive or backward. Ultimately, naming is about power, and until everyone has the power to name themselves, this discussion will never go away.
Other terms not mentioned, like “indigenous peoples” or “Aboriginal” are so vague as to refer to nearly any ancient population worldwide, which is also hardly a useful characterization. (*Words like savage, Redskin, heathen or squaw have all gone out of favour because they have been deemed offensive, and one wonders the fate of all the terminologies we use today.) Defining a group of cultures so widely diverse as those that inhabited North America prior to contact is a fatally flawed proposition in the first place Also, terms like “Iroquoian-speaking” or “Pueblo-dwelling” define giant groups that are just as varied as saying “English speaking” or “Apartment-dwelling.” Borders also make things problematic, as “Native American” is meaningless when you consider the histories of the various groups that regularly crossed modern nation-state boundaries. So, why even bother to try and name people in this way? It is because this is exactly what both historic and modern-day colonizers want. If you can define someone, you can control them.
The natural inclination of those seeking to be respectful would then be: well, don’t generalize, refer to Peoples by their individual group-names rather than as one overarching population. However, this too is fraught with difficulty. Common usage names are often just as false and insulting as “Indian” can be. Take three examples: Mohawk is actually a word used by a rival group, the Narraganset, which literally means “the flesh eaters.” Both Sioux and Apache are French and Spanish corruptions of the word “enemy” in the languages of the Anishinaabe and Zuni Peoples respectively. In all three cases, European invaders, having no clue what they were doing or what the words meant, have defined groups for centuries by the terminology of their direct adversaries!
So, what is to be done? Well, of course, like any discussion of this scope, there is no one “solution” to the issue of naming. Think of how you define yourself and your own history: do you want the right to make that distinction yourself?
Naming is, and should be, about self-determination and empowerment. In the late 1960’s these concepts were flipped on their head when a radical group of activists began referring to themselves as the “American Indian Movement” and began to proclaim “Red Power.” Sometimes the very source of the strength of a word can be dependent entirely on who is saying it. Whenever there is confusion over what to call someone, I would offer only one concrete piece of advice: why don’t you ask them?
***Those of us at Slingshot welcome any comments on this issue and encourage people to send in their thoughts. The issue of naming itself came up at a meeting we had regarding the historical dates included within the organizer. We recognized that we were using far too many vague terms, and sought to define things as precisely as possible in a way those historical figures may have wanted to be referred to***