Archive for July, 2011

July 6, 2011

What’s in a name?

by Alicia Ni'Tracy

[Nat’s article on this topic: “Identity?“]

One day, Nathan and I were reading a news article, linked to in a comment on our blog.  The subject of the article was a group of athletes of the Haudenosaunee nation.  While discussing these athlete’s nation, culture and origins, we repeatedly stumbled over the words to describe their nationality and racial identity.

Nathan asked, “What does the phrase ‘Native American’ mean?”  I’m glad that Nathan raised this question to me.  As we continued to discuss the the words “native” and “American,” I realized that not only does “Native American” seem to be an inept description of the peoples indigenous to this land prior to European colonization, but I couldn’t think of any more accurate description currently in common useage.  I don’t feel comfortable using the terms that are currently widely recognized to indicate these peoples; I find them problematic.

This is a very interesting issue, and one which does not receive much general attention, due to the peoples concerned being, by far, a minority (1.5% of U.S. population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census).  The late historian Howard Zinn, on page 16 in his A People’s History of the United States, explained that, through English raids and the introduction of European diseases, “The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million [by the mid 1700s].”  Please take the time to read the first chapter of this work by Zinn, to better understand both the deliberate and inadvertent methods used by the colonists to wipe out the natives of this land, to put into perspective the interactions between natives to this land and European colonists.

Native people’s lands, as well as their populations, are greatly limited, as they do not enjoy the full extent of land they did before the European occupation of this land but their autonomy is rather limited to “reservations.”  Additionally, even their nations’ limited autonomy continues to be disregarded to this day, as is evidenced in the very article that sparked this conversation, which describes the refusal, by Great Britain, to affirm the validity of Haudenosaunee (Iroqouis) passports.

“America” is the name given to this land by the European nations who occupied the natives’ lands in the first place.  I thought to myself, it does not make sense to call a people by the name of their invaders.  “American” is derived from the name the Europeans gave this land, which they named after one of the people who paved the way for the occupation.  Historically, there have been complaints that Amerigo Vespucci stole the naming of continents from Christopher Columbus – in actuality, the naming of these continents was stolen by the Europeans from the people who actually lived on the those continents.  A native person in my life informed me that the word for this land is “Ongwera.”

I believe it’s problematic if I, a European descendant, call a person native to this land an “American.”  It reminds me of how slavers in this country would suppress the slaves’ own names, which the enslaved people had given each other, by forcing them to respond to names from the slaver’s culture, like English names such as “John.”  These slaves, who had been taken from Africa, were also forced to use English and experienced difficulty in maintaining their own languages in secrecy (much like the native youths were compelled to learn English and forbidden to speak their own languages, in colonial “boarding schools”).  Today, some descendents of those Africans enslaved here are working to restore their ancestors’ old names and languages.

As I slowly learn more about the diverse cultures of those many peoples native to this land, I believe more and more that it is unjust of me to lazily lump all of these peoples into one identity.  They are many peoples, with many identities, many names, such as the Haudenosaunee, the Onondowahgah and the Tsalagi (whom you may know as the Iroquois, the Seneca and the Cherokee, respectively).

Nathan posed another question to me, “Can a person who was born in the United States call his or herself a Native American?”

I suppose such a person is an American, since the person grew up in this culture, and I suppose they’re technically “native,” as the word is defined as someone who is of something by birth.  However, even though “Native American” doesn’t seem to me to be a fair title for the peoples who lived with this land long before the Europeans came, I also think it would be inappropriate for immigrants to call themselves native here.  If European descendants call themselves “Native Americans,” they would be sending the message that their ancestors had just as much right to this land as those people whose ancestors lived here sustainably for thousands of years.  This strikes me as wrong.

I would not want those non-native peoples to call themselves “Native Americans.”  I would want those who are truly, ancestrally native to this land to use the names they choose, rather than to be compelled to use the name their invaders put on them.  I believe people should be free to discover their own racial, national, mother land identities, and yet I don’t want people to abuse this.  It would be an abuse for European descendents to call themselves Native Americans.  Yet it should be their freedom to discover the many lines in their genes and cultural lineage.

I do not yet know how I culturally identify.  I know that I am of European ancestry: Irish, Welsh, German, English and probably others.  I personally relate the most with old Irish culture, but I am not prepared to call myself an Irish person because I am still exploring my cultural identity and am not ready to put myself into any cultural boxes.

Racial, national, cultural identities are so convoluted in this globalized, post-imperial, currently imperial world.  And our culture and English language seem to be falling short of grasping this complexity.

– Alicia Bryan

21st Century Woman


P.S.  My position on cultures indigenous to this land is one of great appreciation for their methods.  I believe they did little to no harm to the land and practiced advanced equality of womb-ones (“women”).  These peoples developed much of our more egalitarian methods today, including some better aspects of the U.S. governmental structure, as well as the consensus process (of which I am a particular fan).  Much documentation of the ritual statements made in community meetings shows perspectives of love and stewardship for the Earth, above all selfish human priorities, and in considering human priorities, shows superlative consideration of equality.

I encourage you to educate yourself further.  I will post some additional resources.  If you have any further resources to share or refer, please do!

July 6, 2011


by Nathan Hershey

Alicia and I started talking about the term “Native American” – what does that phrase mean?  When the term “Native American” came up and I thought about it, it seemed to me that there could be several possible meanings.

Today, in 2011, instead of using the term “Indians” to refer to descendents of the members of tribes who lived here before the European colonization of what is now the United States, this use of the term has become unpopular, or politically incorrect – one term for these people is “Native Americans.”  That may have been a change for the better or a change for the worse, but it certainly contributes to the confusion, with regard to the meaning of those two words together.  If you look at the first generation who were “native” (born here), you’ll see a very diverse cross-section of people.

A “Native American” can be someone who is born in the United States if you use the word “America” to mean the United States and use the word “native” as a modifier to mean “by place of birth or origin” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 1973).  How is “America” distinguished from “the United States?”  You could argue that a Native American would be someone from North or South America because they would be people who could be defined or described as Americans.

Over time, various people have sought to better define who they believe Americans are, by virtue of place of birth, primarily.  A
person who is born on the land which is now the United States would be, presumptively, a citizen of the U.S. and eligible to hold the office of the presidency, under U.S. law.  “American” is used as a modifier for various foods, products and people, and could serve as a descriptor for almost anything (consider American cheese).

Is it "American?" Is it "cheese?"

Now we can take a look at people, for example, who come from central Europe, like Hungaria or Bulgaria.  They came and then they had children who were born in the United States.  Would we look at these children as Native Americans?  If they’re “born in the USA,” as Bruce Springsteen said, could we not refer to them as Native Americans?

Yet some people, for example the Irish, often prefer their original land, in their case Ireland, as their place of identity, based in part on their psyche.  They’re not born in Ireland, but they maintain a strong cultural link.  Even if people would be second or third-generation Americans by birth, some still want to be seen as connected with Ireland, even though the family first left the shores of Ireland a century or more ago.

Because of borders changing in Europe multiple times since the United States was created, some immigrants to the U.S. may have lived in three countries before coming to the U.S.  What term should we use to identify these people?

Also, we find that sometimes a descriptor is adopted by some people, indicating their religion as a modifier in their identity, as well as the nation that their parents left when they came to the United States.  For example, I have heard conversation, from time to time, that some Jews place serious focus on where in Europe, or elsewhere, that their family members came from.  Even though they were born in the United States, they might regard themselves as Hungarian Jews or German Jews
or some other kind of Jews to designate some location in a foreign country to which they link themselves, at least in some psychological sense.

One’s identifier may be, from different people’s views, either positive or negative, or even disparaging in the minds of others.  Two people could have the same identifying background, but choose the words they want to use as their identifiers quite differently.

– Nathan Hershey

20th Century Man