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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