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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Just say Indian

It’s been over a year since I wrote an article describing why I say the word “Indian” when I’m referring to the first peoples of the United States. The reason I wrote that article was that I find it laughable that people at Carleton attempt to tell me that the community is “indigenous” or that the house that I’m going to be the RA of next year is for the “indigenous” community. “Indigenous” was not a word that I grew up with and not a word that I heard until I got to Carleton. My family barely uses the word “Native American,” opting for the simplified “Native” or “American Indian” when in polite company, and “Indian” when casually referring to ourselves. In fact, “Native American” was already a touchy subject at the dinner table at my grandma and grandpa’s house. “Native American” was a term with which they had become accustomed through interactions with woke liberals and leftists, who opted to forgo correctness for the sake of political correctness, but they choose not to use it to this day. My great-grandmother, who underwent the horrors of boarding schools and the policies of extermination, never spoke the words “Native American” to me, as far as I remember. She, along with my mom, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, always opted for “Indian.” “Indian,” after all, was a safe bet. When on the reservation, if you were talking to someone about your dislike of the “feds,” you certainly didn’t mean the Federal Reserve; you were talking about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If you were on a state highway and you happened to be pulled over for having Tribal license plates at a checkpoint, the joke was that you were being pulled over for a DWI: Driving While Indian. In most conversations, it makes sense to say “Indian” because the infrastructure that exists is so integrated into Indian society. If I want free healthcare, I go to Indian Health Services. This summer, I almost interned at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. As part of my Tribal enrollment, I have a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood, which shows my blood quantum next to an Indian Identification Number that is assigned to me for being enrolled in my tribe.

Suffice it to say, I grew up saying “Indian.” So what do I have against “indigenous”? It’s not that I think “indigenous” is a bad word per se; I just find it reductive, ill-fitting, or problematic in most of its common instances of use.

As I’ve previously argued, I think that collectivizing a group of people that share little in common is never a way to organize people. Collectivizing the Sioux of the Great Plains, the Bedouin of the Levant, and the Batswana of Southern Africa does little to address the individual problems that they have. Doing so is no more helpful than describing the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe as AusoAfroEurAsians, a title that no one would find descriptive.

The desire, however, to create a collective term to describe a group of people that had very little in common aside from their geographic-ish commonality is the reason that “Indian” took off as a catch-all term for the native people of North America. Though caused by a misconception, the term stuck around, as demonstrated earlier. The term, however, was deemed offensive and derogatory to the American Indians, and so the phrase “Native American” caught on in the ’80s-’90s. The word, however, wasn’t met with much praise in Indian Country. “Native American” never caught on in the same way that “Indian” had, and that means that there are generations of American Indians, like me, who hesitate before saying “Native American” or cringe when hearing “indigenous.”

The most recent iteration of trying to take away the name “Indian” has come in the form of “indigenous.” “Indigenous” suffers from the same problem as “Native American” in that it, ironically, isn’t indigenous to the people that it’s describing. The major push for describing American Indians as “indigenous” instead of “American Indian” or “Native American” isn’t coming from members of our communities; it’s coming from people outside of them. The push to say “indigenous” when describing the people that the BIA or IHS serves isn’t coming from Indians; it’s coming from performative liberals and leftists who seem to fetishize this idea of a global community of “indigenous” folk. And I think that trying to frame Indian issues in this context of the global community is reductive to conversations that are important to have in the US domestically.

I get that people may not be comfortable using the word “Indian,” especially if you were raised with it being a taboo word. The fact of the matter is, performative activism has made it so that any non-Indian who says “Indian” will be shunned; I also know that saying, “it’s okay, an Indian guy at school told me I can say it,” doesn’t sound great. So here’s my proposal to you: learn the names of the people that you’re talking about. If you’re discussing a matter specific to the Middle East, no one would judge you for specifying the government or people that you’re talking about by the name that they use. In fact, that’s to be expected, so why would it be different with American Indians? If you want to say, “the indigenous people of southern Minnesota,” you could always substitute it with the safe, “Wahpekute and Mdewakanton bands of the Dakota Nation.” Specificity is never wrong, and it’s especially important now.

There are so many policies and issues that need to be addressed in Indian Country that far supersede this desire for pan-Indigenous unity. Tribal sovereignty has never been more at risk, the Indian Child Welfare Act is hanging on by a thread, American Indians are the most likely racial group in America to be shot by police, gaming revenue is falling, and by 2050 it’s expected that nearly 150 American Indian languages will be extinct. These are our top priorities. Indian Country doesn’t want “indigenous,” and we can’t fight back on it.

According to census data, we are around 3% of the total U.S. population; at Carleton, it’s even smaller. Our resources, our people, and our will to fight are directed at so many issues, issues that are in jeopardy in the era of an activist Supreme Court, underfunded legal defense programs, low numbers of Indians attending colleges, and dwindling Tribal revenue. We can barely fight on the issues at stake; we can’t be fighting a war on the use of the word “Indian” too.

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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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