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


3 Comments to “Identity?”

  1. Dear Nathan, There is also the question of who is a Jew. Matriarchal lineage (traditional) or Patriarchal lineage (accepted by the reform movement). I also find it strange that right of return to Israel uses the Nazi definition of the Nuremberg laws. Toby

    • That does seem off to me, too, Toby. I don’t find it all that strange, I guess. People often define themselves by identifying with their oppressors. The people somehow believe it disqualifies the oppressors’ judgements – “Look, we’re not as ___ as you said, we actually satisfy all of your criticisms!”

  2. Thanks for the info.

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