Native Americans?

11 April 2010 0

I recently read a fantastic book called 1491 by Charles Mann, which is all about the Americas before Columbus.

The book isn’t just about the history, it’s about the history of the history, if you like. It’s about how popular views of what the continent was like before Europeans arrived, have changed over time.

I got so engrossed in this excellent book that after finishing it I read all the appendices, one of which is titled ‘Loaded words’, and is about the language used to describe the people who inhabited America before Europeans arrived.

At this point you are either thinking, “You mean the native Americans?” or, “You mean the Indians?”

Mann writes:

“Anyone who attempts to write or even speak about the original inhabitants of the Americas quickly runs into terminological quicksand. And the attempt to extricate writer and reader by being logical and sensitive often ends with both parties sucked deeper into the mire.”

It’s a hilarious quirk of language that a whole continent’s people got the wrong name because Christopher Columbus didn’t know where he was. Indians (the ones in America) are obviously not Indian, because they’re not from India. But ‘Indian’ is far from being the only misnomer in the English language, and let’s face it, it has stuck.

The term ‘Native American’ was popularised in the 20th century as a more accurate and sensitive alternative to ‘Indian’. But some people have pointed out that anyone born in America is a ‘native American’, whatever their ethnic background.

So what’s the right thing to say? Obviously you don’t want to upset people, but that in itself is a slippery concept (who was upset? When? Why? Was it justified?) Mann says he tried to call groups of people by the name they call themselves (another minefield, not least because none of the people of America thought of themselves as being ‘Americans’ at all until ‘Europeans’ showed up). He writes:

“In conversation, every native person whom I have met (I think without exception) has used ‘Indian’ rather than ‘Native American’.”

So, based on this experience, he ends up using ‘Indian’ in most instances, and ‘Native American’ here and there to avoid repetition.

A lot of nonsense gets talked about which words are or aren’t offensive, and a lot of strange arguments get put forward about how the derivation of a word means it should or shouldn’t be used. It’s good to remember that, actually, things are a lot more mixed up than that, and there probably isn’t a right or wrong answer.


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