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!


5 Comments to “What’s in a name?”

  1. Interesting commentary from two bright and thinking persons. Like many contemporaries, when asked ‘what’s your background?’ the reply was often Irish. (When I was 18,my grandmother thought I was old enough to learn that I was in fact, 1/8th Dutch rather than 1000% Irish heritage.) What wasn’t said aloud then was that indeed I was fourth generation American Irish, at least on the paternal track. A bit shorter on the maternal track.
    All in all, then, perhaps Native American if such were to be based either upon personal birthing zip code, as well as parents having the same reality. One senses that some, perhaps many if not most current Americans who trace their heritage and culture to pre-columbus time, feel comfortable if not pleased to wear the reference phrase of Native American. It does connote to those of us who are not so able, a more correct and simply comfortable connection than the term Indian which was the term we began cognizant life with. It surely enhances what we have now slowly, and painfully at times, learned–that there were multitudes of peoples here when Chris Columbus was sailing in the warm waters of the Americas, and that they had many more differences than similarities in their own cultures.
    I believe that the tribes and cultures of the Northwest–Washington, Oregon, West Canada areas–have often if not now opted for the term First People rather than Native Americans. One can sense that being a most comfortable fit.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Dennis, and moreso for reading and commenting.

      I sense that many or most Americans strongly identify as Americans. I’ve run into many people, as well, who are very proud to say that they believe they have 1/16th Cherokee blood. I even ran into a woman a couple of weeks ago who “discovered” through past-life regression therapy that she “used to be a Native American in a past life.” Unfortunately, I also know of some native descendents who are ashamed of their native ancestry and deny it, saying that they’re “white” and that’s all there is to it.

      Please offer me some sources of research showing that the peoples were more different than similar. I do believe they were very diverse, but I currently have no way of knowing which was greater – their similarity or disimilarity.

      “First People,” “First Peoples,” and “First Nation Peoples.” Seems superior to many of the other options!

  2. I like exploring the convolutions of all these identities, because as they overlap, distinguish and lump together with each other they serve to remind us of a couple of very important things about being human: As individuals, we are not any one particular thing; and, everything we say we are is pure invention.

    When the ancestors of the Haudenosaunee, the Onondowahgah and the Tsalagi came to this landmass, it was by crossing a land bridge that is now mostly underwater, but includes what is now a small part of what we call Northern Europe. Their ancestors came from what we now call Africa, just like the folks who never crossed that land bridge.

    I think it’s more interesting to learn what matters TO people by listening to what they say matters ABOUT themselves. We believe we are something or some way because of these heritages. While there is something to that, I think we are far more greatly impacted by what we say to ourselves about what these heritages mean in our lives.

    There’s a wonderful illustration of this kind of identity puzzle in Nicole Kraus’ book “The History of Love” (pg 95) which I have hanging on my wall because I so enjoy it. In it, a 12 year old daughter is speaking with her mother while her 10 year old brother listens in. The daughter tells her mother she has a friend who’s Russian. Her mother says, “Just Russian?”, and begins to diagram the 16 different pie charts that the daughter might choose from to claim as her heritage. There are so many because her ancestral families came from different European countries, some of which were subsumed by other countries during different times of history. The daughter becomes exasperated and stomps away, shouting, “I’m an American!” As she passes by her brother, he calmly states, “No you’re not, you’re Jewish”.

    • Well said, Mad! Thank you for sharing that excerpt. It is illustrative in a very real way, without bogging the message down in social analysis!

      If we are any one particular thing, it is carbon, or matter, or nature. Whatever race we are, we are made of dirt. Anything we say is invention as much as any form or function in nature is invention. Even if all humans today did not originate in the same land, or from the same creatures – even if there were originally independent phenomena growing independent human-types with no shared ancestry (which I doubt), we are all creatures of Earth.

      Now I’m thinking about plants. An asparagus and a magnolia are different plant families, even though the asparagus is a monocot and the magnolia is a dicot and many theorize that the monocots and dicots share ancestry. At this point, they are both plants with many shared behaviors and needs – sun, water, etc. But they also have needs that are exclusive to each… The magnolia needs a certain kind of soil, a certain amount of shade, a certain amount of water, of kinds and amounts different from the asparagus’ needs. So, each of these plants has needs based on their ancestry and development. Yet, the magnolia can still adapt to its environment. She may tolerate a little more sun than her sister, or slightly rockier soil. There creates further diversity and new characteristics which may not have previously existed with her parent magnolia. Ultimately, the new magnolia (which we might call by a new, more specific name) is still a plant, and is still made of dirt.

      I agree – we each determine what we say about our histories and can each adhere to some traditions and revamp others.

  3. I think I’m a bit late on reading this post, but it’s my first time on the site and chose this entry at random.

    Randomly chosen link, perhaps, and totally related to what I just read from a book I found this weekend and opened up to read this evening. It’s called Growing Up Native American, edited by Particia Riley, a collection of stories/essays by 22 Native American writers. I’d like to share a passage here from the foreword by Inés Hernandez:

    “Native people know that the term ‘Indian’ is a misnomer, but we have made it our own, just as we have made ‘American Indian’ and more recently ‘Native American’ our own, even though in our original languages, each of our peoples had (and have) their own name for themselves and for this part of the earth that is now known as ‘America.’ We refer to each other by the tribe or nation that we are from… The labels ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’ are in the end simplistic generalizations, generic terms, that at best acknowledge the fact that indeed indigenous peoples in this hemisphere did and do have something in common.”

    I also have a hard time with these terms (Native American, and especially Indian – besides sometimes confusing it with people from the country of India), and Inés’s thoughts helped me understand the language around these identities a bit better. Reading that someone told you that the name for this land is “Ongwera”, I want to point out that it’s possible that there are several names for this land, in addition to this one, just as there are many names and languages for tribes and nations of indigenous (or Native) people of the “Americas”.

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