Native American Indian Studies -
A Note on Names ©

by Peter d'Errico, Legal Studies Department, University of Massachusetts

Native American Indian Studies is a mouthful of a phrase. I chose it because I want people to think about names. I want to provoke a critical awareness of history and culture. In the study of Indigenous Peoples, I don't want the question of names to slide by, to be taken-for-granted. 1

Most of us know the story about how the Peoples 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 he met "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? 2

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, even today. 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 focuses 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 correctness."

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 on them.

"Native American Indian Studies," then, is a way to describe an important part of the history of "America," of the colonization of the "Americas." It is a part of world history, world politics, world culture. It is a component of "Indigenous Peoples Studies." By using this terminology, we aim 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 apparent capturing of Indigenous self-understanding in the United States (and not only in American history classes). 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 indigenous self-identification.

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 story established a relation that became crucial in the encounters of Christian colonizers with the inhabitants of the "new world."

A critical approach to "Native American Indian Studies" aims to reclaim the power of naming that has so long stifled Indigenous self-awareness and self-expression. The goal of this kind of education is to build a curriculum that enhances Indigenous self-determination. We cannot be deterred by the fact that English has intersected with and hybridized the ways in which Indigenous Peoples name themselves. I offer this provocation toward the deconstruction of definitions which have trapped Indigenous Peoples in the dreams of others.


1. For a detailed critical analysis of government naming practices—including an extended discussion of "the renaming of Native Americans" as a "cultural project: to fashion and normalize a standard patriarchal family-system deemed suitable to [U.S. and Canadian] citizenship, property rights, and civilized, moral conduct"—see James C. Scott, John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias, "Government Surnames and Legal Identities," in Carl Watner, ed., National Identification Systems (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004). The essay originally appeared as "The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 44:01, pp. 4-44 (January 2002). [available from Cambridge Journals Online]

2. The following excerpts from an 1897 essay by the Superintendent of the U. S. Boarding School for Crow Indians, Montana, illustrate the government policy of "naming the Indians": "The Indian Department has continually urged this matter upon its agents, superintendents, and other workers 'in the field.' The command to give names to the Indians and to establish the same as far as possible by continuous use has been a part of the 'Rules and Regulations' for years past. ... In this thing, as in nearly all others, the Indians do not know what is best for them. They can't see that our system has any advantages over their own, and they have fought stubbornly against the innovation." Frank Terry,"Naming the Indians," American Monthly Review of Reviews, (New York: March, 1897). [This essay is available as an etext from, a nonprofit library for genealogy & history-related research .

Alexandra Seremina, a graduate student in the Department of Computational Mathematics, the Novosibirsk State University, has provided a Romanian translation of this statement, courtesy of Azoft. Thank you, Alexandra!

Valeria Aleksandrova, a third-year student at the Linguistics University of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, has provided a Polish translation of this statement, courtesy of . Thank you, Valeria!

© copyright 1998, 2005, Peter d'Errico