by Peter d'Errico, Legal Studies, UMass Amherst
Native American Indian Studies is a mouthful of a name. We chose
it because we want people to think about names. We want to provoke
a critical awareness of history and culture. We don't want to slide
by, to be taken-for-granted.
Most of us know the story about how the people of the "new
world" came to be called "American Indians." Columbus
(his name gives away his secret: Cristobal Colon; the Christian
colonizer) thought he was going to India and, being a vain and self-important
man, insisted he had found it. So he named the people Indians. The
American part would come later, after everyone but Columbus had
admitted his error, and the land had been named for another Italian
navigator, Amerigo Vespucci.
"American Indians" derives from the colonizers' world-view
and is therefore not the real name of anyone. It is a name given
to people by outsiders, not by themselves. Why should we use any
name given to a people by someone other than themselves?
On the other hand, why shouldn't we use it? Almost everybody in
the world knows the name and to whom it refers. It is commonly used
by many indigenous peoples in the United States. It is the legal
definition of these peoples in United States law.
Some people get upset about "American Indian" because
of its association with Columbus. There is an equally serious dilemma
with the use of "Native American," which came into vogue
as part of a concern for "political correctness." The
latter was an effort to acknowledge ethnic diversity in the United
States while insisting on an over-arching American unity. Groups
became identified as hyphen-American. Thus, African-American, Irish-American,
Italian-American, and so on. For the original inhabitants of the
land, the "correct" term became Native-American.
The word "native" has a generic meaning, referring to
anyone or anything that is at home in its place of origin. "Native"
also has a pejorative meaning in English colonization, as in "The
natives are restless tonight." From an English perspective
(and, after all, we are talking about English words), "native"
carries the connotation of "primitive," which itself has
both a generic definition, meaning "first" or "primary,"
and a pejorative use, meaning "backward" or "ignorant."
And, as we have seen, "American" derives from that other
Italian. So Native American does not avoid the problem of naming
from an outsider's perspective.
Concern for political correctness focused more on appearances than
reality. As John Trudell observed at the time, "They change
our name and treat us the same." Basic to the treatment is
an insistence that the original inhabitants of the land are not
permitted to name themselves. As an added twist, it seems that the
only full, un-hyphenated Americans are those who make no claim of
origin beyond the shores of this land. Many of these folk assert
that they are in fact the real "native" Americans.
We have to discard both "American Indian" and "Native
American" if we want to be faithful to reality and true to
the principle that a people's name ought to come from themselves.
The consequence of this is that the original inhabitants of this
land are to be called by whatever names they give themselves. There
are no American Indians or Native Americans. There are many different
peoples, hundreds in fact, bearing such names as Wampanoag, Cherokee,
Seminole, Navajo, Hopi, and so on and on through the field of names.
These are the "real" names of the people.
But the conundrum of names doesn't end there. Some of the traditional
or "real" names are not actually derived from the people
themselves, but from their neighbors or even enemies. "Mohawk"
is a Narraganset name, meaning "flesh eaters." "Sioux"
is a French corruption of an Anishinabe word for "enemy."
Similarly, "Apache" is a Spanish corruption of a Zuni
word for "enemy," while Navajo is from the Spanish version
of a Tewa word. If we want to be fully authentic in every instance,
we will have to inquire into the language of each people to find
the name they call themselves. It may not be surprising to find
that the deepest real names are often a word for "people"
or for the homeland or for some differentiating characteristic of
the people as seen through their own eyes.
The important thing is to acknowledge the fundamental difference
between how a people view themselves and how they are viewed by
others, and to not get hung up on names for the sake of "political
In this context, the difference between "American Indian"
and "Native-American" is nonexistent. Both are names given
from the outside. On the other hand, in studying the situation and
history of the original peoples of the continent, we do not need
to completely avoid names whose significance is understood by all.
Indeed, it may be that the shortest way to penetrate the situation
of indigenous peoples is to critically use the generic name imposed
Native American Indian Studies , then, is a part of the history
of "America," of the colonization of the "Americas."
It is part of world history, world politics, world culture -- as
a component of "indigenous peoples studies" generally.
Native American Indian Studies aims for a critical awareness of
nationhood and homelands, of indigenous self-determination.
It is sometimes noted how far advanced indigenous peoples in Latin
and South America and Canada are in thinking about their nationhood,
as compared to native peoples inside the United States. A major
reason for this disparity is the capturing of indigenous self-understanding
in the United States (and not only in American Studies). The substitution
of "Native American" for "American Indian" may
actually deepen the problem. Everyone knows the indigenous peoples
are not Indians. Not so many know they are also not Americans.
A survey of American Indian college and high-school students, reported
in Native Americas [Winter, 1997], indicated that more than 96%
of the youth identified themselves with their Indian nation, and
more than 40% identified themselves solely in those terms. Only
a little more than half identified themselves as American citizens.
This survey is an example of the usefulness of the "incorrect"
label "Indian" to explain something significant about
It's been asked ,"What's in a name?" Sometimes the answer
is everything, as when the name is Rumplestiltskin; sometimes nothing,
as with the fragrant rose. N. Scott Momaday, in The Names: A Memoir,
writes about the meaning of who we are that is contained and not
contained in our names. Names, in other words, are mysterious, sometimes
revealing sometimes concealing our identity or the identity of a
people or place.
Names can have great power, and the power of naming is a great power.
History and law, as well as literature and politics, are activities
of naming. The Bible tells a story of God giving Adam the power
to name the animals and other parts of creation. An important part
of the Judeo-Christian creation story is a power of naming that
is a power over creation. This set up a relation that became crucial
in the encounters of those colonizers with the inhabitants of the
Native American Indian Studies aims to reclaim the power of naming
that has so long stifled indigenous self-awareness and self-expression.
Our goal is to build a curriculum that enhances indigenous self-determination.
We will not be deterred by the fact that English has intersected
with and hybridized the ways in which indigenous peoples name themselves.
In our own name as an academic organization, we offer a provocation
toward the deconstruction of definitions which have trapped us in
the dreams of others.