Follow the Stories | Bismarck, North Dakota (2006)
"American Indian" or "Native American"?
A guest at the Bismarck ROADSHOW referred to "Indians" during his conversation with appraiser Brad Witherell (right). But is that the term he should use?
"I abhor the term Native American," says Lakota activist Russell Means.
At the 2005 ROADSHOW in Bismarck, North Dakota, a man brought in a Colt gun made at the turn of the 20th century, and had some dramatic family folklore in tow as well. The gun had apparently belonged to his great-uncle, who in 1902 got into a gunfight; he was, in the words of the present owner, "killed by an Indian." That word — Indian — has often been used, both by guests and appraisers alike, to refer to various indigenous American peoples who crafted objects such as rugs or pots that appear on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW regularly.
There's no doubt that labels, especially as they apply to groups of people, are a very sensitive subject, and sometimes difficult to discuss. Nonetheless, the appraisal in Bismarck caused us to ponder again what are the issues surrounding this particular label and the widely varied group of people it is often used to describe?
Is the term Indian anachronistic, even offensive? What about American Indian? Is the more recent term Native American preferable, or simply more politically correct than proper?
In the 1960s, many people, both non-Indians as well as Indians, challenged the use of the word "Indian." Some argued that it was a term coined by oppressors, and also a misnomer — they were not, after all, the Indians of the East Indies that Columbus thought he had met in the Caribbean. The critics argued further that over the centuries the word had gained a pejorative meaning, often conjuring up images that were simplistic, romanticized and often disparaging that were reinforced by TV serials and Hollywood westerns — think, for instance, of Tonto of the Lone Ranger series.
Is one more correct than the other ... and why?
These cultural critics suggested substituting the term Native American for Indian. They maintained that Native American was also more accurate, as one meaning of native was "being the original inhabitants of a particular place," as Native Americans were.
But despite the supposed political correctness of Native American, it has not become the preferred term. "The acceptance of Native American has not brought about the demise of Indian," according to the fourth edition of the American Heritage Book of English Usage, published in 2000. "Unlike Negro, which was quickly stigmatized once black became preferred, Indian never fell out of favor with a large segment of the American population."
Nor did the word Indian fall out of favor with the people it described. A 1995 Census Bureau survey that asked indigenous Americans their preferences for names (the last such survey done by the bureau) found that 49 percent preferred the term Indian, 37 percent Native American, and 3.6 percent "some other name." About 5 percent expressed no preference.
Moreover, a large number of Indians actually strongly object to the term Native American for political reasons. In his 1998 essay "I Am An American Indian, Not a Native American!", Russell Means, a Lakota activist and a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), stated unequivocally, "I abhor the term 'Native American.'" He continues:
It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. These are the American Samoans, the Micronesians, the Aleuts, the original Hawaiians, and the erroneously termed Eskimos, who are actually Upiks and Inupiaqs. And, of course, the American Indian.
I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins. ... As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity.
At an international conference of Indians from the Americas held in Geneva, Switzerland, at the United Nations in 1977 we unanimously decided we would go under the term American Indian. "We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians and then we can call ourselves anything we damn please."
Yet others argue that neither term should be used, because they both blur the differences between various Indian peoples. In her essay "What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness," Christina Berry, a Cherokee writer, argues that people should avoid the terms Indian and Native American:
In the end, the term you choose to use (as an Indian or non-Indian) is your own personal choice. ... Very few Indians that I know care either way. The recommended method is to refer to a person by their tribe, if that information is known. The reason is that the Native peoples of North America are incredibly diverse. It would be like referring to both a Romanian and an Irishman as European. It's true that they are both from Europe, but their people have very different histories, cultures, and languages. The same is true of Indians. The Cherokee are vastly different from the Lakota, the Dine, the Kiowa, and the Cree, but they are all labeled Native American. So whenever possible an Indian would prefer to be called a Cherokee or a Lakota or whichever tribe they belong to. This shows respect because not only are the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American an over simplification of a diverse ethnicity, but you also show that you listened when they told what tribe they belonged to. ... What matters in the long run is not which term is used but the intention with which it is used.
See the Bismarck, North Dakota (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For more by the essayists cited above, see:
"What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness," by Christina Berry.
"I Am An American Indian, Not a Native American!," by Russell Means.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
Translation, Please ... (Tampa, 2006)
So, Whose Pistol Is It? (Honolulu, 2007)
Armed With a Colt Letter ... (Mobile, 2007)
What's the Deal with Confederate Flags? (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.