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What’s in a word: Why I say “Indian”

By Bax Meyer (Oglala Lakota Oyate)

My great-grandma attended a boarding school. The history of the United States’ boarding schools in the United States is a legacy of cultural genocide. My great-grandmother was never the same after her experience with a school that tried to tame the “wild Indian” inside of her. In the last three weeks since I published my first piece on Indian Country and Tribal sovereignty, I’ve received a significant amount of feedback and questions regarding my use of the word “Indian.” For many people at Carleton, that term seems pejorative and downright offensive. Many have commented that the term “Indian” is a misnomer, a relic of Columbian exploitation. I’ll admit that, when I got to Carleton, I was a little surprised that there was this much stigma surrounding a word that I had heard used in my family and my tribe my whole life. Questions about my use of the term have even morphed into criticism. As one person asked me, “Why use ‘Indian’ when ‘Indigenous’ conveys the same message without the problematic name?” I do not use the word “Indigenous” when I’m referring to American Indians or Alaska Natives, and I think it’s high time I explain why. 

I want to start by saying that this piece isn’t a larger thesis on what Indigeneity means. Scholars such as Noam Chomsky have been providing these takes — from an outdated and problematic perspective — for decades. I argue that “Indian” is not only the right term for what I’m talking about but also that “Indigenous” is harmful to the arguments that I’m making. I will be using “Indian” throughout this piece, but it should always be inferred that I’m referring to American Indians and Alaska Natives, along with Pacific Islanders, living on their homelands occupied by the United States. 

I should note that from the Western lens, Indian — as it pertains to American Indians — is indeed a misnomer. When the Spanish arrived in what we now call the Americas, they believed they had reached India. Therefore, the people who lived there were denoted as Indians. This term stuck for centuries. From the Indian Removal Act to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Western people utilized the term “Indian” to label us. It doesn’t take a long or extensive knowledge of history to know why the Western world wanted to create a category for the people indigenous to the newly-occupied land. The U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments needed a term to describe the people that they didn’t want. The term Indian was a demographic marker for extermination, a marker to signify a government’s undesirables. This term, however problematic, was unique to us. There were no American Indians indigenous to Africa; there were no American Indians unique to Australia. “American Indian” was a clear and concise term to categorize a population. 

Eventually, the West realized that colonization meant displacing these populations. In an attempt to coagulate this category, the term “Indigenous” grew in popularity. “Indigenous” simply described whatever and whoever they wanted it to. Despite this rise among non-Indians, American Indians in the 1960s and 1970s came to reclaim the term that used to be a mark of undesirability. Grassroots, Indian-led campaigns in the United States such as the American Indian Movement started reclaiming this name to make it ours. “Indian” was reclaimed to convey a message of universal struggle. Though the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts and the Hopi people of Arizona have as much in common with each other as two people from Portugal and Poland do, the term American Indian serves as a common marker. Even if two Native nations from across the country have almost nothing in common culturally, religiously or individually, they both reside in a country that wanted to exterminate them. It then becomes necessary to find a term that fits the people who live in a country that occupies their land. 

This is not to say that “Indigenous” is never correct. It has its place in everyday parlance, but it hardly conveys the point that people who are referring to Indians want to make. Every American Indian is, by definition, indigenous to the Americas, and therefore “Indigenous” is an overarching term that, when referring to a plethora of Indigenous folk from across the globe, is never incorrect. It’s when “Indigenous” becomes the catch-all term to replace “American Indian” that I start to worry. “Indigenous,” in its own way, is just a sign of otherness. It’s a concept rooted in purposely describing everyone that isn’t white. Because of that, it’s incredibly broad, to the degree that it becomes practically meaningless in many theories of Indigeneity. In the same way that American Indians are indigenous to the Americas, the Aboriginals are indigenous to Australia and the Saan are indigenous to Southern Africa. As is such, the language that academics and policymakers use regarding the people they’re talking about matters. If Secretary of the Interior Deb Haalan, started using “Indigenous” as the catchall term for American Indians and Alaska Natives, it would become unclear whether she was referring to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders who share the same geography as the United States, to Canadian American Indians who live in diaspora in the United States or to countless other groups that fit under the UN’s definition of Indigeneity. This issue becomes especially important when talking about Treaty Rights. The Hopi have a treaty with the federal government and with Arizona, but the Samburu of East Africa do not. It is to avoid this confusion and to be more specific that I personally choose to use “Indian.” 

I don’t want this message to be muddled. “Indian” is a very loaded term for many people, including many American Indians. It brings back memories of the boarding schools and of acts of genocide. Who am I, a pasty-skinned man who happens to be Tribally Enrolled, to say that there’s only one right way to describe a group of diverse people? The truth is that I’m no one. I shouldn’t be the reason that someone uses a term, but I will gladly tell you why I use it. 

My great-grandmother didn’t talk much about being American Indian in a school that was there to erase her culture. One thing she did say routinely is that she was an Indian and that she suffered for it. If honoring her memory and remembering her suffering means using a term deemed unusable by my non-Indian peers, then I’ll do so without remorse. 

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About the Contributor
Bax Meyer
Bax Meyer, Managing Editor
Hey, all! I'm Bax (he/him), and I'm a junior Econ major with a Middle East Studies minor. I love talking about Middle East politics and American Indian Treaty Rights. I'll always send you good book or movie recomendations. You can probably find me on campus wandering the arb, on 1st libe, or at step areobics. I like dad jokes, American Indian Treaty Rights, shawarma, and publishing my hot takes in the Carletonian anonymously.
Red flags: econ major, will judge you for using the Oxford comma, and hates geese
Green flags: Middle East Studies minor, still uses the Oxford comma, and quotes the Star Wars prequels on the daily
Bax was previously Managing Director and Viewpoint Editor.

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