|Home | The African Continent | Africa & the World | Indigenous to America|
Indian, American Indian, and Native Americans: Counterfeit Identities1
In his recent article "The Colonialism of Names" (Winds of Change, Winter, 1997), Dr. Jack Forbes argued for throwing off the names of colonialism and insisted that Indigenous Peoples be treated as human beings worthy of respect. I totally agree with his thinking and suggest we begin by refusing to use "Indian," "American Indian," or "Native American" to identify the Indigenous Peoples of the United States. I believe these words are names of colonialism and reflect the linguistic imperialism that Howard Adams cautions us about in the above quote. Colonialism refers to when an alien people invade the territory inhabited by people of a different race and culture and establish political, social, spiritual, intellectual, and economic domination over that territory. Colonialism includes territorial and resource appropriate by the colonizer and loss of sovereignty by the colonized.
In my most recent writings,
I consistently use the terms "Indigenous" and "First Nations"
Peoples. For me, using these terms is an important part of my
intellectual decolonization and liberation from linguistic
imperialism. I prefer using Indigenous Peoples because it is an
internationally accepted descriptor for peoples who are the
descendants of the original inhabitants of the lands, and have
suffered and survived a history of colonialism (for example, see the
U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, www.halcyon.com/FWDP/drft9329.html). I like the term because it is
accurate and reflects who we really are. For instance, Webster’s New
Collegiate Dictionary, 1981, defines indigenous "as having
originated in...or living naturally in a particular region or
environment" whereas, Indian is defined "as a native inhabitant of
The terms Indigenous and First Nations Peoples still generalize the identity of the more than 550 Indigenous groups in the lower forty-eight states and Alaska. However, I believe they are empowering "generalized" descriptors because they accurately describe the political, cultural, and geographical identities, and struggles of all aboriginal peoples in the United States. I no longer use "Indian," "American Indian," or "Native American" because I consider them to be oppressive, "counterfeit identities." A counterfeit identity is not only bogus and misleading, it subjugates and controls theidentity of Indigenous Peoples.
There are several additional problems with using the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American. First, they are inaccurate and confusing labels. For example, Indigenous Peoples in the United States are not from India and, therefore, not Indians. They are the descendants of the First Nations of these lands. The term Native American is confusing because anyone born in the Americas can be referred to as a native American. Second, the terms threaten the sovereignty and nationhood of Indigenous Peoples and undermine our right to use our tribal affiliation as our preeminent national identity. The terms also subsume our original identity ("Indigenous Peoples," who are the first peoples of the land) and imply foreigners ("Indians"). Moreover, they are highly inaccurate for tribal groups who continue to resist European American "citizenship" and colonization. Third, they are historically entangled in American racist discourses that claim Europeans "discovered" a "new world" that needed to be "settled," "claimed," and "civilized." This myth-making has promoted the notion that the original inhabitants were unable to settle, claim, and civilize these lands because they were "nomadic " (unsettled) and "savage" (uncivilized) peoples. Fourth, the terms dehumanize and stigmatize Indigenous Peoples by using stereotypical "American Indian" images as emblems for selling products and mascots for sports teams. Indeed, educator Paulo Freire, who is most noted for the promotion of critical consciousness among the oppressed, suggests that through the process of dehumanization the consciousness of the oppressor transforms Indigenous identity into a commodity of its domination and disposal.
The continued use of Indian, American Indian, and Native American maintains counterfeit identities for Indigenous Peoples. As part of the decolonization of Indigenous scholarship and thinking, I suggest these terms must be discarded in favor of more empowering descriptors. To me, ceasing to call Indigenous Peoples Indians, American Indians, or Native Americans is more than an attempt at "political correctness," or a change in semantics. It is an act of intellectual liberation that corrects a distorting narrative of imperialist "discovery and progress" that has been maintained far too long by Europeans and European Americans.
Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, a citizen of the Sahnish (Arikara) and Hidatsa First Nations, is Assistant Professor and Director of the Office for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice in the School of Social Welfare, University of Kansas.
1 Yellow Bird, Michael.
(1999). Indian, American Indian, and Native Americas: Counterfeit
Identities. Winds of Change: A Magazine for American Indian
Education and Opportunity, (14), 1.
this article reprinted from America Indian Sports Team Mascots