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Archive for January, 2011

Indians and Eskimos

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

My recent commentary on CNN.com was immediately criticized for my use of the term “Indians” to refer to North American Indians. I am not concerned since I have mentioned before the futility of hoping that by changing the name of something, we will cure all problems associated with it.

While language reflects the way we think (hence the substantial Word History in all our daily Good Words), it does not control the way we think, let alone behave. The native and immigrant Americans of European origin have done and continue to do great injustices to the American Indians throughout the Americas. However, changing the names of the victims does not end that injustice or the prejudices that lead to it.

I particularly avoid the term “Native American” since, well, I’m a native American, a native North American, to be exact, just as I am a native North Carolinian. The word native is based on the Latin past participle natus “born” and refers to where someone is born. A native American is someone who was born in America, nothing more. Capitalizing the phrase does not change its meaning nor the guilt felt by the more sensitive native Americans whose ancestry goes back to Europe.

We went through this with the word Eskimo, when some liberal linguist learned that it meant “blubber-eater” in a neighboring Indian language, and hence all Eskimos should be offended by it. Well, to the Eskimos of Alaska, none of whom spoke the offending language, Eskimo meant “Eskimo”, nothing more. It carried no pejorative connotation and they, in fact, preferred it to words like Inuit which means “person” in their native language. Well, yes, of course they are people. So are we, but we don’t call ourselves Persons to distinguish ourselves from Canadians and Mexicans.

Most North American Indians refer to themselves as Indians. The new Smithsonian Museum dedicated to their culture and history is the National Museum of the American Indian after seeking the advice of recently informed linguists, several of whom work there. Many other state and local museums are similarly named. True, we know now that the American Indians did not come from India, leading some to feel it necessary to add the epithet American to Indian when referring to them by their heritage, but American Indians are (American) Indians, and that is what distinguishes them from the cultures and histories of other native Americans.