Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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What's in a Name?

July 13, 2005

The question just came round again on the copyeditors' e-list I'm on: Native American or American Indian? What do "they" want to be called?

Preference for one or the other has shifted back and forth over the years. Some believe that "Native American" was popularized, even coined, by white liberals uncomfortably aware that "Indian" was geographically incorrect. Discussions of the subject tend to run along the same ruts: After a few rounds of "I think" and "I heard" and "so-and-so says," someone will opine that it's better to use tribal names, if you know them. Enter the backlash: The words are polite, but the subtext is something like "That's too complicated. You mean I'm supposed to find out what tribes these people belong to?" Predictably the discussion spins off into how "American" isn't correct either, and "indigenous" is problematic, and in Canada "First Nations" is used, and . . .

The nice white liberals don't want to get it wrong, but they don't want to work too hard either. The notion that Native Americans, American Indians, Cherokee and Navajo, Micmac and Wampanoag haven't reached consensus on the subject worries them. The writer Paula Gunn Allen identifies herself as Laguna Pueblo / Sioux / Lebanese American: I hear gaskets blowing all over white liberaldom.

Of course it's not just about "American Indian" vs. "Native American." "Black" vs. "African American" takes up considerable bandwidth, and is it OK to use "Negro" in a story set in the late 1940s? Why do some black people call each other "Nigger" and why do I in certain circumstances call myself a "dyke"?

What some people can't see -- can't-see so persistently that "won't" may be the better word -- is how much who does the naming matters, and the extent to which names shape the way we think about people, places, and things. USians of European descent don't have much trouble acknowledging the distinctions among, say, the Polish, the Spaniards, the Greeks, and the Dutch. On good days we can remember that "English" and "British" are not synonyms and that Switzerland includes Italian-, German-, Romansch-, and French-speaking regions. Africans, Asians, and American Indians, however, we comfortably lump into masses, as if the distinctions among them were not significant enough to worry about.

As Lillian Smith (whose understanding of and eloquence about sexual and racial politics was way ahead of her time and maybe ours too) wrote, and I never tire of quoting: "The winner names the age" -- and all the peoples therein. Many whose names were stolen and forgotten are trying to name ourselves, and what do you know, we don't all come up with the same answers. Human beings are complex; categories considerably less so. The more you know, the less adequate the categories seem. Keep that in mind.


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