Date: Fri, 12 Jul 1996 06:29:15 -0500

[Co-editor's note: Over the past few days, H-Latam has played

host to a fascinating discussion of the use of the word "Indian"

in everyday and scholarly discourse. Here are three posts on the

question. JB]

1)Date: Mon, 8 Jul 1996 21:02:41 -0400


Subject: QUERY: Use of "Indian"

Date: Mon, 08 Jul 1996 14:00:05 -0700 (PDT)

From: Stephanie Wood <>

I would appreciate the input of colleagues with opinions on the use of "Indian" (versus "indigenous," "native," etc.) in scholarly writing. If this is a topic already hashed out on the list, please reply to me personally. Thanks so much.

Stephanie Wood <>

2)Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996 00:30:14 -0400


Subject: REPLY: Use of "Indian"

Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996 14:01:56 +0000


Words are not things, as we in academia know at least from Aristotle through the (post) structuralists (thank you Foucault) and beyond. The word "Indian" or "indio/a" is not a thing, it is a word that makes reference to a cultural history that grouped millions of peoples together through a term taken from another continent.

Specificity in language use does not constitute political correctness, but instead demonstrates an awareness of the appropriate use of and sensitivity to language, especially taking into account that human beings exist in a dynamic language context. If one wishes to be specific in referring to a group of people, "indios" is not particularly specific and can be (is not always) offensive. If one is interested in avoiding giving offense, context matters. I would think that academics who follow this list have an interest in respecting others.

Words have a cultural history and their interpretation in any given context depends upon the speakers, the subject discussed and the audience, among other important variables. Awareness of differences is a mark of maturity, or at least sensitivity, not political correctness.

With reference to the question "What is wrong with calling Indians 'Indians', or indios 'indios'", I would respond: "What is wrong with calling 'portenos' 'Latins' or 'latinos'?" Historically the inhabitants of Buenos Aires have a relationship with others whose language comes from Latin. Aren't they Latins? But does "Latins" tell you anything about the inhabitants of Buenos Aires? It mainly tells you about a cultural history in which peoples who spoke Romance languages were grouped together by others. In the US referring to someone who speaks Spanish or Portuguese as "Latin" can be offensive because that term has a cultural history of stock, usually negative, stereotypes created by the users of that term. Some Spanish speakers in the US prefer the term "latino/a" but they would never wish to be called "Latin"; other Spanish speakers in the US are NOT "latinos(as)", and so on (not to mention Hispanic). Each term has a separate cultural history.

Similarly, there are Native Americans who refer to themselves as Indians when they are emphasising characteristics shared by many groups; others prefer the former term, but there is NO Native American who does not also have a second identity that is regional for which there is a more specific term such as Navaho (or Navajo). Similarly, there are groups of people working for indigenous rights who use the term "indios". There are also plenty of people who use this term with pejorative intentions and the strong negative connotations associated with the term "indio", mainly on the part of the dominant elite, have led academics to avoid its use, since publication for a mass audience will inevitably cause offense in some places. On the other hand, there are few or no negative associations with the use of the term 'indigenous', so one is less likely to offend by its use.

Words are not things, indios are not Indians and an indio is not an india or India.


Kathryn Lehman

Spanish and Latin American Studies

University of Auckland

Private Bag 92019


New Zealand

Ph. 64 9 373 7599 X6651

Fax 64 9 373 7000 internal 4000


3) Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996 15:27:39 -0400


Subject: REPLY: Use of "Indian"

Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996 08:51:35 -0600 (CST)



The term "Indian" obviously derives from "Indio," a Spanish caste term that essentially collapsed culturally diverse indigenous groups into a single racial and fiscal category. This is an issue I am currently addressing in an ongoing research project that examines the use of racial and caste terms in parish registers and other documents. I prefer to use either indigenous over "Indian," or else specific ethnic terms. Even ethnic terms that survive in colonial Spanish documents can be misleading. "Apache," a term created to classify bands that ranged from Arizona to Texas, was based on a word picked up from non-"Apache" groups. The most accurate label to use would be the term used by each indigenous group to describe itself, usually something like "the people." As a general term I would use indigenous.

Robert Jackson

Date: Fri, 12 Jul 1996 09:26:18 -0500

[Simon Katzenellenbogen <> writes:]

I have little experience of the use of the term `native' to refer to indigenous peoples, but on the basis of my experience regarding Africa I am somewhat wary. In the African context, colonial administrators and others used the term `native' as a synonym for Africa, but a synonym with a very pejorative context. It had the clear connotation of sub-humanity, etc. You even have the ludicrous phrase `foreign natives' used to refer to Africans from another colony.

The use of the term with regard to the Americas is of course different, but my recollection is that there are some parallels between the colonial use in African and its use in America. This applies to the term `native' on its own. The term `native American' as I understand it would not have that pejorative connotation.

These thoughts for whatever they may be worth.

Simon Katzenellenbogen

Date: Sat, 13 Jul 1996 06:32:51 -0500

From: (David Neufeld)

To add to the interesting discussion on the use of the word "Indian" initiated by Kathryn Lehman, Auckland, NZ, I would like to add some information on the evolution of this issue in the Yukon Territory in northwestern Canada and my own recent trans-border experience in the use of similar terminology.

The explorers and miners travelling into the Yukon River basin in the late nineteenth century regularly referred to the indigenous population as "Indians", usually with a regional or indigenous reference prefix, an example is Dr. Willis E. Everette writing in 1884, "[miners would be] constantly in danger from the Tanana Indians, who would be very jealous of them...".

This word was formally adopted by the Canadian departments responsible for "Indian Affairs" and through the twentieth century, different groups were organized by the government into Indian Bands. These "Bands" were generally established on a geographical basis, probably on the assumption that physical proximity was a useful divider of groups. It also recognized the government's method of gathering aboriginal people into central locations to facilitate administration.

In the Yukon, the aboriginal population was also divided by anthropologists into linguist groupings. This reflected their own focus upon language as a determinant of cultural communication and transmission. These language groups were generally broader than the Indian Band designations of the government.

Yukon aboriginal groups recognize the administrative and linguistic structures super-imposed by both anthropologists (for language training and cultural retention) and government (for local administration) as useful elements. However, for many elements of their lives, these forms are ignored or set aside. Family relations, more often shaped by trading networks pre-dating contact with "newcomers" (the locally accepted word for non-indigenous people of the Yukon arriving in the 19th and 20th centuries) within and reaching outside the territory, are also powerful determinants of identity and linkages.

During the Yukon land claims process, a thirty-five year process, just now coming to fruition, Yukon aboriginal people initially formed themselves into two groups, the Yukon Native Brotherhood and the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians. Their mutual interests however soon led to their combination into a single umbrella organization, the Council for Yukon Indians, or CYI, to negotiate with the other levels of government.

By the late 1980s, the spirit of independence and self-worth stemming from the land claim negotiations and other advances, led to an aboriginal rejection of the term Indian and its replacement by the new term "First Nations". As an example, the Dawson Indian Band, a Han group of Athapaskan people (by old terms) named because of their proximity to Dawson City (named after George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada) recently changed the name of their group. The community has re-taken control of its identity and become the Tron'dek Hwech'in First Nation (sorry, no diacritics in email), that is, "people of the hammer water", a Han language reference to their seasonal reliance upon the fishing of spawning salmon in the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. Today, the use of the term First Nations is widespread in the aboriginal communities and respected by government, researchers and the population as a whole. References to Yukon Indians are rare.

Over the past year I worked with an Alaskan colleague, Frank Norris of the USNPS, on a book on the Chilkoot Trail. While best known for its role as a major route to the Yukon Gold Fields during the Klondike Stampede of 1898, the trail also has a significant, and much longer, history as an aboriginal trade route. In writing about this important aspect of the region's history we fell afoul of our two nations' different responses to aboriginal presentation. "First Nations" is the Canadian term of choice while in Alaska the favoured term is "Native Americans". After some toing and froing we agreed on a compromise where references to aboriginal peoples in what is, or would become, Alaska became Native Americans (also variously identified as Tlingit, Chilkats, etc.) and their peers in the Yukon became First Nations (similarly identified by specific group names).

Look forward to hearing more on this topic.

David Neufeld

Yukon and western Arctic Historian


#205 - 300 Main St.

Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2B5


phone (403) 667-3913

fax (403) 393-6701


Date: Sat, 13 Jul 1996 10:40:49 -0500

Mae M. Ngai <mn53@COLUMBIA.EDU> writes:]

I am intrigued by David Neufeld's comments on peoples of the Yukon, specifically on the use of "First Nations" by Canadians. On a visit to British Columbia several years ago I noted a similar usage, i believe it was "First Peoples." I am interested in this approach, of naming people in temporal terms. It seems, first of all, to be historically problematic because it is backward looking, adopted to give a relative meaning to the historical "place" (really time) of indigenous peoples, who came first, before others, i.e. before colonists, who came "second" or "later". I wonder if any other group is named, or names itself, post-facto, as it were. Second, it is not clear to me if this name is adopted by the "first nations" or "first peoples" themselvees, or if it is a name given/used by anthropologists or others. Because the question of naming is a question really of identity politics, i prefer to use the name that people have given themselves specifically ("Seneca" versus "Native American Indian" [incidentally "Native American" is problematic because historically it was used to distinguish Americans of European descent born in the U.S.-those of 'native stock'-from European immigrants]). At the same time, there is nothing inherently wrong with a collective name for groups of people that share common territory or experience, i.e. "European" or "Asian," although these are of course also politically determined.

Mae M. Ngai

Columbia Univ.

Date: Sun, 14 Jul 1996 06:44:53 -0500

[David Beriss <> writes:]

This whole discussion on the term "indian" has been quite fascinating.

Simon Katzenellenbogen's comment about the uses of the term "native" in Africa points to the difficulties of trying to be linguistically appropriate across cultures. Not only is "Native American" used happily in some North American contexts, the notion of "tribe" has a rather more positive place among North Americans than it does in Africa. I think the history of nation/state creation and the rather different forms of colonial rule are responsible for these differences.

But I have also had contradictory experiences with "Native American" vs. "Indian" here. I used to work for a US senator, serving on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The most common term there was (and is) "Indian", except for "Native Hawaiians" and (I think) "Native Alaskans", whose legal status is distinct. Most Indians exist, for Senate purposes, as members of tribes and there is a great deal of stock placed in Federal acknowledgment of a tribe's status. One of our staffers, a Lakota himself, indicated that he preferred Indian to Native American because the U.S. Constitution only recognizes his tribal sovereignty as an Indian (see article 1, section 8 of the constitution). Native American, he felt, reduced his identity to "just another ethnic group" whose rights would be fought out on civil rights grounds, not on a nation-to-nation basis. However, we also had a staff member of Ojibwe origin, who preferred "Native American". Although she did not put it in the clear terms he did (different educational backgrounds accounted for this, I believe), as an "urban" Indian, she felt that her activism had much in common with African Americans, Hispanics, etc. and therefore felt comfortable with an ethnic rather than national status. Of course, all of this skirts the issue of whether people would prefer identification as members of specific tribes...but that choice is probably situational.

My point here is that the usage varies (more broadly than I can account for here) even within one country, but that the usage itself can tell us a great deal about what people want to claim about their identities. And, heck, I never heard anyone refer to "indigenous" peoples in the Senate...

David Beriss

Date: Tue, 16 Jul 1996 15:17:50 -0500

From: R Irwin <>

A friend remarked that writing to a list is frightening and humbling. At risk of making a fool of myself, here goes.

Since I posted my note on the use of the term "First Nations" in Canada, I have taken the time to think-always a useful exercise sometimes ignored when I write on e-mail. Here is an explanation of my problems with the terms "First Nation" and although I am not an expert in American history, "Native American."

I am concerned about my role as a historian in the classroom and as a public voice of expertise(?) in history.

Both terms are problematic in this regard. They both emerge in modern political struggles by Indian communities to obtain a voice in the national debates. As Sara Lowes noted, these communities have decided to use the language of modern discourse in order to be heard. In Canada, the term "First Nation" suggests Native people have a role in the Constitutional debates which haunt our country. The use of the term nation in our political and constitutional debates had been restricted primarily to the "pact" or lack thereof between the French and English nations within the Canadian colonial state. Indians in Canada resented the lack of voice this bi-focal debate left for their communities and have made a deliberate effort to obtain a seat at the table. Hence the Assembly of First Nations. While I am reluctant to delve into the American issue, I see similarities in that country. Nationalism is much for pronounced in the United States and the adoption of the term Native Americans by the leadership of the Indian communities appears intended to lay claims to citizenship in the American polity.

While both terms thus make political sense, as a historian in the classroom they are difficult. First, they are historically invalid. Canada's treaty and non treaty Indians played no role in the definition of the Canadian state or in the creation of its identity (I would suggest the same is true for the U.S.). Indeed, if they played a role it was the mythology of the "noble savage," and their place in the context of wilderness and lack of civilisation which influenced the debates. Indian communities, like the landscape, were obstacles to be overcome, or in modern western American historical discourse "conquered."

Second, the students in the classroom are confused by the concept of nation as it applies to native people. Nation implies cultural and in some respects social continuities. As it emerged in the French Revolution and German romanticism, nation emphasises the collective identity in the face of rampant individualism. It had little to do with self-government. Historical native actors/actresses do not fit the model of nation which most students bring to the classroom. Students quickly assume that all Indian people share characteristics and have cultural bonds. They also assume that tribal organisations functioned on lines similar to our modern states. While it may be true that tribal designations were important to the Northeastern Iroquoian peoples (I have my doubts) they had little importance to many western American and Canadian Indian communities. These societies were primarily band oriented societies in which racial, genetic, and cultural continuities were less important than the basic survival mechanisms which a band developed. Bands were fluid and dynamic because they had to be. They served as both economic unit and as a mode of dispute resolution. As a recent article in the _Canadian Historical Review_ pointed out, the leaders of different bands of the Peigan (often considered an example of a tribal political entity) responded differently to the fur traders and neighbouring Cree and Gros Ventre bands. They made choices and their membership varied depending upon those choices.

While some of the problems mentioned above could easily be addressed to any terminology applied to the collective Indian community, the concept of First Nation, because of the baggage nation brings with it, and similarly the problems associated with the term Native American and the notion of citizenship this entails (indeed special citizenship) are both worse than other labels.

In my classroom, for the lack of a better idea (I am open to suggestions sent to my personal account if you like) I use primarily tribal distinctions with an emphasis on the fluid nature of the community. Thus I refer to groups as Anishnabe, Kanai, Siksika, Cree, Gwichin etc. when possible. When searching for a collective noun for all peoples falling into this racial (ever notice how North Americans search for racial collectives) collective, I use Indian and Native interchangeable. Indian is important in the Canadian context since it carries legal implications.

The relationship between native communities and the crown is built upon:

sec. 91(24) of the Constitution where Indians and Indian lands are a federal responsibility; Indian Treaties recognised in the Constitution since 1982; and the Indian Act. Thus it continues to find a place in my classroom and in my writings.

Trust I haven't bored you all or made any foolish mistakes.

Bob Irwin

Date: Mon, 29 Jul 1996 10:04:05 -0500

[Sharon Delmendo <CLASAD@MAIL.DLSU.EDU.PH> writes:]

Just a quick note on the "Indian" thread-

I may have missed some of the posts on this thread, and I think I may be responding to the original post, which started with the idea of "Indian"/Native American "nation" in Canada. One of the foundational questions, if I remember correctly, was the question of whether "Indian" tribes could be considered "nations" from a (national) governmental perspective.

I don't know about Canada, but this very question was addressed in a Federal Supreme Court case in the early 19th century--1832, I think. It's _Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia_. The Cherokee were fighting forced removal, and the question of whether the state of Georgia (who wanted to bump the Cherokee to make room for Anglo settlers and because gold had been recently found on Cherokee tribal lands) had legal rights over the Cherokee tribe, especially as constituted as "nation." It's a fascinating case, and I think I remember interesting minority opinions on the Court. (note, "minority" here means a dissenting opinion, not that the Justice in question was a minority. In 1832, of course, we were a LONG way from minority Justices!)

Hope this doesn't come too late to be of help.

Best from Manila,

Sharon Delmendo

De La Salle University