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Indians and Eskimos

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.

5 Responses to “Indians and Eskimos”

  1. John List Says:

    This is a minefield I inadvertly strayed into in Canada when I discovered that there are no Indians in that country. I seriously confused my mother-in-law when I refered to her Hindhu colleague as “Indian”. As a Brit, I’m used to describing people from India in that way. Not in Canada, there it seems they come from a place called “East India”, while the indigenous people refer to themselves as “First Nation”.

  2. Daniel Says:

    This is really a fascinating topic.

    Calling someone a blubber-eater sounds bad in Southern California, but in Eskimo lands it probably refers to a daily activity, and shouldn’t necessarily offend anyone.

    Here in Spain some people get irritated with Americans from the USA for calling themselves Americans. In Spanish, anyone from Canada to Tierra del Fuego is “americano” and people from the USA are estadounidense, aka Unitedstatesian.

    Oh well.

  3. Qjames Says:

    Americans are people from the entire two continents. Like for many who peruse this site, precision in the words we choose is important.

    Native. Are we not splitting hairs here? Native, regardless of the Greek origins, has become to describe indigenous or (often) endemic, for example native plant. In the USA, those who are the stock of settlers have the genetic characteristics of other peoples from other parts of the world. So whether you feel ‘American’ or not, the primary meaning of native means ‘originally from’. Give it a couple more hundred years and no one will care, but until then it is a useful classification and readily understood by the rest of the world.

  4. Christina Torres Says:

    This touches on the whole attempt to be “PC”. It seems that in the desire to not offend others there is a propensity to lump together people of various ethnicity. That is a personal gripe of mine, the whole necessity to differentiate communities, without utilizing the proper characterization. Possibly it is better to not try to differentiate at all and just consider where someone is actually born, or holds citizenship to be there identification? It might alleviate a lot of the PC stress… :)

  5. Christina Torres Says:

    oops meant *their*

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