By John Marcus
As part of my duties, I send out a group of blurbs to our email subscribers that we call AIHFS Community Announcements. (if you are interested in signing up for this, click here) Sometimes I will get a response or question emailed back to me. Recently, I received a question in regards to the first people of this land: “What do you preferred to be called?”
I let them know that mostly, I try to think about the context. One of the most formal contexts that we can discuss is the political status as designated by the United States government. This we would also refer to as a federally recognized tribal member. This is someone that has a tribal enrollment card from their specific tribal community within the United States. This means they are legally entitled to the rights of that Tribe, as designated by that Tribe who in turn maintain a special relationship with the United States. The specifics of that relationship vary from Tribe to Tribe and is beyond the scope of this blog. I think of federally recognized tribal members, or cardholders, as American Indian because that is the term used by the U. S. and this term is used to designate which communities are able to receive monies and things like that. These community benefits are the result of having a government-to-government relationship originally, or more specifically government-to-government agreements, also known as Treaties. This important point is often left out of most discussions about what to call us. This is also a good time to mention that most tribes in the Americas existed before the United States, Canada, or Mexico and their relative imposed international borders, but I’m focusing mainly on the United States in this posting.
When I am in a more relaxed setting, I usually use Native American or my actual tribal names: Mohawk, Pueblo or Chippewa. From the heritage on my father’s side, I can say pueblo, or sometimes I will get more specific, since there are 19 pueblos, and say Taos Pueblo, but the traditional name means place of the red willow.
On my mother’s side too, I sometimes get more specific and say Six Nations Mohawk (meaning Six Nations Indian Reserve, Ontario, Canada), but the traditional name for Mohawk people is Kahniakehake and means people of the flint, which incidentally, geographically referred to eastern New York state. Those were the homelands of the Mohawk prior to the American Revolution.
When I was a boy crossing the international border into Canada with my maternal grandfather he would always tell me as we got closer to the booth housing the customs agent, “remember, when they ask citizenship, you say North American Indian.” I felt confident while waiting for the person in the booth to start asking the citizenship question in our vehicle and, at my turn, I would say, “North American Indian.” It was one of my earliest experiences of feeling like an adult.
My grandfather was from a generation that had migrated to the Detroit area and I believe had this identity discussion back in the 40’s. As a result, they formed what they called the North American Indian Club, which later became the North American Indian Association. The organization is still in existence today.
Looking closer into what the term Indian even means, what do the Indians of India call themselves now that they are no longer under British rule? Their country is still called India on maps and in the media. Now according to Wikipedia the ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi, which translates as “The people of the Indus.” The Indus river runs through what is now called the country of Pakistan. But we don’t know if the people of that river actually called themselves that or not, only that this is what the Greeks called them. It turns out when the people of India did break free of British rule and adopted their constitution in 1950, they used the name Bharat as an official name for the country throughout that document. Yet, on the maps I have access to and all the news I can find, that country is still called India. So, even the “real” Indians are not actually Indians, but that’s what everyone still calls them.
That brings us around to one of the most important perspectives, the media perspective. What voice is that context? What efforts have they made to use the appropriate designation?
Bringing it back to our original question, I must also say that a Native way of pursuing this question is to ask this question of the native community members, under guidance of local native Elders, and listen to their results, as my grandfather’s generation did. Until then, I will go by what the local Elders I’ve heard use and also go by what my family has used. If someone uses a label around me in a manner that I find offensive then I will tell them as much. Most people will respect that.
In trying to follow my own micro version of the Native way of approaching this question, I did an in-house survey, amongst the native staff here at American Indian Health & Family Services. Below are the results and I hope they help us all move forward on this question.
For additional viewpoints on this question, here are some links to writings I have found helpful.
- This first link asks six prominent Natives this same question.
- On this link, featuring Lisa Ling, it includes a reference to the Spanish having a role in naming the people in this continent.
- This link is from PBS that has a lot of statistics and also includes the opinion of one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, Russel Means.
In closing, here are some questions to consider.
- If you are Native, what term do you prefer and why?
- If you are Non-native and have asked a Native what they prefer, what was their response?
- There are also state recognized Tribes throughout the United States. These Tribes are not “recognized” by the federal government. I wonder if they might have a different choice for what to be called?