September 30, 2004

Only One Little Indian

by PG

Eugene Volokh takes issue with the notion that using "Indian" to signify the native peoples of the American continents is a "goof." The Slate Explainer column

gives no survey evidence that American Indians really perceive this as a "goof." It simply says that they "often dislike this simplest of monikers," with no indication of how "often" this is. Is it that 10% of Indians dislike it? That 30% dislike it and 70% are just fine with it? That 30% dislike it, 20% like it, and the rest have no opinion?
I don't think that the only problem here is how Native Americans feel about the use of the term "Indian"; the concerns of South Asians should be relevant as well.

People are genuinely confused by the double usage of "Indian" to identify two very distinct groups of people. When I've said "Indian" in response to queries about my ethnicity, some questioners have replied, "Oh, what tribe?" Or better yet, "My grandfather was half Cherokee." No, not that kind of Indian.

Stephen Colbert clarifies with "Sitting Bull or Gandhi?" but this is dubious outside the Daily Show context. Language ought to be used in ways that maximize listeners' understanding, and multiple meanings for a single word cloud that understanding. As I don't think there's much dispute that the people whose near ancestry actually lies in India have the best claim to "Indian," let the Native Americans go find their own word.

September 30, 2004 02:39 PM | TrackBack

Point well taken. Has Volokh taken (or at least seen) it too?

Posted by: Nick Morgan at September 30, 2004 08:31 PM

I'm with giving them the same term they use in Canada. There they're called First Nations.

Posted by: Beanie at October 1, 2004 10:09 PM

It seems to me that most American Indians don't take this question all that seriously. Most American Indians that I know take a certain pride (myself among them) at referring to American Indians as "Indians." That said, it is humorous when someone qualifies the use of "Indian" with the question "Dots or feathers?"

However, my serious position on this is that we should be referring to Indians by their tribal affiliation, so that the phrase "Cherokee Indian" would be a redundancy. In that scheme, Indians are Indians and Cherokee are Cherokee. Confusion alleviated. Unfortunately, most Americans are so ignorant of history and ethnic matters in general that Cherokee (or Navajo) is probably the only tribal name they know. So, unless some serious educational efforts are made, most Americans will remain blissfully ignorant of the imprecision of their terminology.

Regarding the "best claim to 'Indian'" statement you made, let's remember that Indians didn't choose this moniker, it was imposed upon them. They always considered themselves Menominee, or Lumbee, or Anishinaabe, or Piegan or whatever other name they had for themselves. It was those pesky white folks that lumped them in with people from a continent that Columbus was too incompetent to find.

Posted by: Bian at October 2, 2004 12:25 AM

Regarding the "best claim to 'Indian'" statement you made, let's remember that Indians didn't choose this moniker, it was imposed upon them.

Oh, I know -- I had a para about the silliness of using a name that's based on a mistake, but cut it. Anyway, it might be nice if Americans also were so educated in culture that they could distinguish among groups of Indians (ex: understand that there is no language called "Indian" and not all Indians even speak Hindi), but I'm realistic and realize that that's too much to ask.

I appreciate your comment, but it doesn't reach my concern about the fact that no matter how amiably Native Americans receive the term "Indian," it remains an imprecise and misleading word to use for them in many contexts due to the confusion with people of South Asian ancestry.

Posted by: PG at October 2, 2004 03:55 AM
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