What’s In A Name?

I’ve been thinking about Samantha’s recent post regarding the meaning of “Indian”.  I’ve though about this a good deal recently, as actually being in India casts an entirely new light on the issue. Growing up, the only tribal people I saw were either “Injuns” or African Natives. These folks were in movies and on TV, and frankly, the Amerindian characters looked like white guys with face paint to me.

At home, the only mention of Indians came from my mother, who fairly often lamented the fate of “those poor people”. My father never spoke about Indians, but graciously joined me in various excursions looking for the sites left by the Hopewell culture in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Only the year he died did my father say he wanted to go to the Black Hills and visit the land of his father. He asked if I would take him. I had an enormous amount on my plate, and asked to defer for a year. He waited until on his deathbed to tell us we are “Native” on both sides.

When I moved to New Mexico for graduate school, I had, for the first time in my life, Native American friends. That was in the mid-seventies, and Red Power, and Chicana/o Power were strong on campus. My friends were mostly Taos, and seemed to feel their traditions were intact and strong, so they could befriend the other, in all of our hues. Later I moved to far northern California and found friends among the tribes who lived there.  Mostly, when we talked about what they wanted to be called, my friends said, “Taos, Hupa, Hopi, Navaho (Dineh), Tewa, Salish….

Now, of course, there are lots of opportunities for tribal people to get together for Pow-Wows and such. This is, in my eyes, a good thing, even though it is the result, largely, of the vast deportations of tribal people from reservations to large cities. Out of  all this mingling have come lots of children (like my sister and me), and a sort of pan-tribalism that serves to create some common ground, even as it may threaten tribal identities. I sometimes suspect, in my darker moments, that the various state and Federal governments favor pan-tribalism as a stop along the road to assimilation, a form of quiet, humane, genocide; another strategy remains the uneven distribution of resources to tribes, creating disputes and tensions, and reducing cooperation between tribal entities.

One place where Indian gets used  a lot is in the sporting arena. I have always found the use of “Indian,” in the naming of non-Native sports teams, offensive. I believe I got that from my Dad, but it must have been through osmosis. The sports teams at my high school were, and still are, the “Indians”. I found that wrongheaded then, and do so now.

Having been to India, and spent time with tribal people there, I find the term “Indian” even more confusing. Tribal people in India (there are even more egregious issues in Brazil, and many other countries) are not really considered Indian. Apparently, one must give up one’s tribal identity in order to be Indian, although many Indians quietly consider themselves, at least distantly tribal.  Here, in the U.S., one must be enrolled in a tribal group to be Indian, at least for official purposes.

I find myself challenged to discern, with any consistency, when “Indian” is used to slur and exclude, when it demarcates pride in tribal heritage, or when it is simply a term utilized to market artifacts. Things get really chaotic. Add all of us who are a blend of Indian and European (Metis, Mestizo, and Mixed Bloods, Half-Breeds) and things become even more confusing. This much is clear: tribal people (no matter what we are called) face continuing pressure to assimilate; there is seemingly endless encroachment on tribal lands and identities; and racism plagues many people who are visually identifiable as “Indian”. In spite of all this, to quote Bill T. Jones, “We are still here.”


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