Does it Rain in Nativeamericanapolis in the Summertime?
The following is a letter I wrote to a teacher who marked my son off for using the word “Indian” in reference to the Navajos. She preferred the term “Native American” as “Indians live in India.”
This is in response to your note about my son’s use of the term “Indians” in his assignment. First, let me say that Michael’s mother and I are very pleased with the lessons, and grateful that he is learning about the indigenous cultures of North America.
I am not sure, however, that I can agree with the use of “Native American” at the exclusion of the term “Indian”.
I find it interesting to note that the article in question was about the Navajo tribe, and often referred to them by that name. Yet the lesson itself mentioned that they call themselves Diné, and that Navajo is a name given to them by their neighbors.
Or consider the poor Haudenosaunee, who are to this day called the Iroquois–a name conferred upon them by their enemies.
And what about a more modern example: My family and I live and work in Brazil. Brazilians take issue with the fact that we are called “Americans” because, after all, they are Americans too…South Americans. Many insist on calling us North Americans. Yet that name does nothing to distinguish us from the Canadians. For some reason, the term “United Statesian” (estadosunidense in Portuguese) has gotten little or no traction.
I am well aware of the cosmic geographical error that caused the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere to be called “Indians” (although I am inclined to give Columbus et al some slack–what with there being no Google Earth at that time and all…). Yet it seems to me that it is much more efficient to refer to a people by a name that has been theirs for over half a millennium.
Also, while Native American clears up that bedeviling confusion between the inhabitants of the Mississippi River Valley and those of the Indus River Valley, it replaces it with a new problem: Who exactly is a Native American?
I most certainly am a Native American. I was born in Ithaca NY, to parents who were also born in America (or the United States, if you will). I was not a part of any invading army or migrating people-group. Of course it could be argued that my ancestors took land that was not originally theirs, but everything indicates that the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) who were in Upstate NY at the time also took that land from previous groups that lived there.
And should I, in a fit of conscience, return to the British isles from whence originated my ancestors, then I might as well go back to France as I am a direct descendant of the invading French horde of 1066. And who knows…upon arrival in France I may discover that I was the descendant of a soldier of the ruthless Roman army that brutally conquered that country under Julius Ceasar. This would occasion a move back to Italy. But if I should find and attempt to occupy my family’s original lands in Italy I can be certain that the current inhabitants of said lands would be…nonplussed.
So I guess what I am saying with all this is that it is impossible to completely right all historical wrongs…geographically or grammatically. We may just have to accept some things as they are (I guess I should shelve plans to seek redress from the clans that ran my family out of Scotland) and move on with life.
I would write more, but I promised my son that we could play “Cowboys and Native Americans” this afternoon. Then I need to call my brother in Nativeamericana and see if he was able to get tickets to see the the Nativeamericanapolis 500.
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I was going to send smoke signal, but I could not find a match. Two sticks did not work out either.
Anyway, we could compromise and use the term American Indian. From what I can tell the indigenous folk in the Amazon are called Indians in português. Political Correctness is mentally challenged (cannot use the other word).
This is an awesome letter. I hate how people think that just because you use a certain term, that you are automatically offensive to that people group.
Kalyn is right- but I would add that some think just because they use a PC term they are automatically unoffensive.
Tim and I have been discussing the use of the words “pagan” and “believer”/”nonbeliever’. I think I´m going to call myself a Terran or maybe woe-man; I really like the “earthy” element! Altho it does not come close to my actual ancestry. Perhaps the exact location SHOULD be a part of a person´s descriptive name. I recall a discussion years ago with my daddy. He was complaining about the India – ans taking over all the gas stations in his area. I said, you know what Dad? If it wasn´t for immigrants (to the U.S.), you and I would not even be here! It did stop his ranting momentarily.
Anyway, enough of my provoked memories. Your essay is magnificent. Very possibly within the particular group of peoples, they themselves have the perfect terminology. I know for a fact that certain groups of peoples are criticized at times for using the terminology about another group that within THAT particular group it is a commonly used descriptive term used for each other within that group. Didn´t mean to confuse you; just don´t know any other way to put it without possibly sounding offensive to the groups I´m avoiding directly naming.
Just like it has taken me years to understand the culture where I now live, and the cultures within the culture, where I am still considered an outsider, a “norte-americana”, I imagine it would take many moons to understand the thinking of each subculture in North America well enough to not occasionally offend. As an “outsider” here, I have always felt it would be nice if “they” would learn a little bit more about MY culture so they would not be so easily offended when I make a cultural “Boo-Boo”. But, alas, I do have certain advantages at my disposal that most here do not have and I carry a message that I hope to transmit without being “tuned-out” because I am an outsider. It is a hard choice and it does take time and effort invested on both sides.
I thoroughly enjoyed your response to the teacher! Totally agree with you that it’s impossible to right all historical wrongs geographically or grammatically. And even if a name/term was originally wrong or derogatory, it is no longer seen as such after centuries of use. I think it’s common sense to use the names with which people are familiar. Plus, misnomers preserve part of history. Why did Columbus call them “Indians”? Because his world at that time didn’t realize that two more continents even existed. When people in the future look back at our current change in history books from “Indians” to “Native Americans,” they will learn about the “political correctness” and supposed cultural sensitivity of our world today. Names, right or not, reflect history.
Just curious to know how the teacher reacted to your letter and if it helped your son’s grade?