Native American or American Indian? Beats Us.
You may have learned in school that Thanksgiving was all about the Pilgrims and the Indians, but is it? As with many terms that have become embroiled in the PC wars, the short answer is: That depends.
The New York Times permits use of the word “Indian” in headlines and in articles – just not on first reference, in which case “American Indian” is the preferred term, as in this Dec. 1 story that started off talking about “the leaders of 564 American Indian tribes” who met with President Barack Obama and went on to say the health care overhaul being debated in Congress “appears poised to bring the most significant improvements to the Indian health system in decades.”
But Obama, it seems, doesn’t hold by the Times’ preferred appellation. In the same story, he is quoted as saying that “Native Americans die of illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza at far higher rates.” Senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-NC) opted for a catchier sound bite, saying, “We’ve got the ‘first Americans’ living in third world conditions.”
UPI used a similar linguistic juxtaposition in a headline, announcing: “‘First Americans’ get 2nd-rate healthcare.”
That phrase is reminiscent of Canada’s pick, First Nation (or First Nations), which this Canadian Press story uses to describe not just a people, but an individual person, using a rather counterintuitive sentence construction to describe “the first lobster processing plant to be owned and operated by a First Nation in Atlantic Canada.”
As for Obama’s choice of “Native American,” it is consonant with that of the Los Angeles Times, which reports that “15.6% of Native American households” do not use banking services.
The Associated Press has also come around to accepting that usage, though it had previously favored “American Indian,” as in this piece about Disney’s move away from all-white heroines. The AP suggests following the preference of the person being described, and using a specific tribe when possible.
The government itself uses a variety of terms. This year the United States Mint began minting and issuing $1 coins “featuring designs celebrating the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans to the history and development of the United States,” in keeping with the Native American $1 Coin Act. But there is also the Indian Health Service, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Congress of American Indians lobbying group.
Although The New York Times considers “American Indian” to be the most recognizable description, it is also fine with using “Native American” to describe individuals or organizations that prefer the term, though it notes that some have rejected it because “Native American” can also include other groups, such as Eskimos, Aleuts and Pacific Islanders.
Indeed, Lakota activist Russell Means, like the NYT, supports “American Indian,” saying, ”the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity.”
There seems to be some agreement among American Indians (my preferred term) that the use of either designation is acceptable, according to a description of the terminology debate provided by the North Carolina Humanities Council. It cites a 1995 census survey that found 49.76 percent of American Indians preferred that term, compared with 37.35 percent who preferred “Native American.”
The humanities council explains that the term “Native American” entered the scene in the 1960s and 1970s as an alternative that might be viewed as more accurate and respectful than “Indian” (and, later, “American Indian”), which dates back to Columbus’ mistaken initial assumption that he had reached eastern Asia.
One term that pretty much anyone who grew up in the United States would consider out of bounds is “Red Indian.” But that phrase is still used in some British-influenced countries and even appears in mainstream publications, like this piece in the British newspaper The Independent, in which the columnist casually writes that “a Red Indian lady brought us the bill.”
And speaking of “red,” what about those Washington Redskins?
The National Congress of American Indians argues that the name is “patently offensive, disparaging, and demeaning and perpetrates a centuries-old stereotype,” but the team says the name was “in honor of the team’s head coach, William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, who was a Native American,” and that it has no intention of changing it.
So what’s really in a name? Shakespeare might have known the answer, but to judge by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to decline to hear this 17-year-old legal challenge, it seems that the response of the highest court in the land is: Beats us.
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