With the majestic flat Irons towering outside the University of Colorado’s humanities building, I recently sat in an auditorium waiting to be introduced as part of a media panel discussion.
Before the panel began, a young indigenous student introduced the moderator — Shoba Rajgibal doctoral student from India. The young Osage woman ended the introduction by unwittingly describing Rajgibal as “the other Indian.” A number of us chuckled.
Rajgibal wasn’t the “the other Indian.” Those of us representing the Lakota, Apache, Ojibwe, Navajo and Hidatsa were the “the other Indian.” The event led me to ponder, once again, the identity of American Indians, also known as Native Americans, also known as Indians.
Those collective names have stuck for centuries, beginning more than 500 years ago when Christopher Columbus called the first indigenous people he met “Indians”. As the story goes, he thought he had met people of the East Indies.
As time passed, colonists invented and placed dozens of names upon North America’s native inhabitants. Like a number of North American indigenous nations, the largest tribe in this country once called themselves “The People.” If you said that phrase in their tribal tongue, they would be called Dine (di neh).
To the rest of the world, the Dine eventually became known as the Navajo. The origin of the word Navajo is disputed, but is believed to be of Spanish derivation. It’s only been in recent years that the tribe began to publicly reclaim its traditional name.
Meanwhile, many other tribes became widely known by their enemy’s description of them. Take the Lakota, which means “alliance of friends” in the Lakota language. Instead, they became known as the Sioux, a French variation of an Ojibwe word meaning “treacherous snake.”
Collective labels such as Indian ended up encompassing more than 550 tribal nations in North America, including 221 Alaskan native villages.
Today, newspapers across the country rely on the “Associated Press Stylebook” when it comes to define indigenous people in print.
Listed under “Indians” the 1997 definition reads: “American Indian is the preferred term for those in the United States. Where possible, be precise and use the name of the tribe: He is a Navajo commissioner. Native American is acceptable in quotations and names of organizations.”
The use of American Indian is more acceptable than Native American, which continually loses its flavor. The term has become bland as more and more people choose to identify themselves as Native American simply because they were born in America.
Actor Charlton Heston, also president of the National Rifle Association, recently summed it up in Time magazine: I’m pissed off when Indians say they’re Native Americans! I’m Native American, for chrisakes!”
The term Indian has its own baggage: Lazy Indian. Drunk Indian. Wild Indian.
Although national organizations such as the Native American journalists Association have adopted the label — much the way the Navajo and Sioux came to accept their names — the organization will discuss the Native identity issue during its 16th annual conference next month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Michael Yellow Bird, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, will help lead a NAJA discussion about how native people want to identified. Exploring the issue in the Spring 1999 “America Indian Quarterly,” he writes that Indian, American Indian and Native American are oppessive, misleading, inaccurate, counterfeit identities.
He also asserts that a refusal to use those terms would represent “an important paradigm shift of the identity of Indigenous Peoples in the United States.”
As Yellow Bird and other like-minded people call for the end of labels such as Indian, many tribal people have begun referring to themselves collectively as “native” or “indigenous.” The first preference is to be identified to a specific tribal entity: Lakota Nation. Ojibwey Nation. Omaha Nation.
In 1987, the “Associated Press Stylebook” listed several words — including powwow ad teepee — deemed “disparaging ad offensive” to Indians, advising reporters not to use them. It also went on to define American Indians as those who “migrated to the continent over a land bridge from Asia.”
The land bridge theory was highly disputed in native circles and is no longer a part of the stylebook definition of Indians.
In the current stylebook, one still finds references to native people under the heading of Indians where American Indian remains listed as the preferred term. And for some odd reason, powwow and teepee continue to be deemed offensive.
Perhaps it’s time for another change.