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Native American or Indian, which is correct?

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My daughter has to write a term paper on one of the Southeastern tribes before Christmas holidays. Please, could you answer my questions ASAP. She says that her textbook only uses the term Native American, but her teacher mainly says Indians. Which is correct? Would you be insulted if I called you an Indian? Also, which tribes in the Southeast have the most accurate histories? J. Garrett - Denver, Colorado

The ethnic label, Indian, began on the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. He thought that he had found a direct ocean route to the islands of Southeast Asia, which were called the Indies by Europeans. Therefore, he labeled the indigenous peoples that he encountered, Indios. From that time until the 1980s, Indios (Spanish), Indien (French and Germanic), Indian (English) or American Indian were used by “polite people” for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Indigenous peoples in North America commonly call each other “Indians” today.

Far too frequently, other, more derogatory terms were slurred at the indigenous peoples of the Americas that were intended to belittle and subjugate them. For example, during the “Mayas in Georgia” controversy, an editorial statement was published in an American archaeology journal, under the name of Dr. Ramon Sorro of the Oxford University (UK) Department of Anthropology, that labeled me personally as “an ignorant peon.” Just as an Irishman would resent being called a “Paddy” by an Englishman, the Oxford scholar’s use of “ignorant peon” was intended to be the ultimate insult to an indigenous American. However, given the diametrically opposite reality of the controversy, the intended insult seemed quite humorous. Nevertheless, this arrogant attitude toward suppressed peoples by many Caucasian members of the anthropology profession is exactly why indigenous Americans have been sending their youth to universities then developing their own research institutions.

At the height of the “politically correct” movement in the late 1980s, many vocational and ethnic labels were changed. Policemen became law enforcement officers. Firemen became firefighters. Colored People became African Americans. American Indians were re-labeled “First Nations” in Canada and “Native Americans” in the United States. The term, Native American, has increasingly replaced American Indian, but American Indian is still used by numerous government agencies and institutions. For example, the Smithsonian named its latest museum, “The Museum of the American Indian.”

The term “Indian” theoretically only applies to a native of the Republic of India in Asia. However, Latin Americans still almost exclusively use the term, Indios, for indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples in the United States are generally ambivalent to whether American Indian or Native American is correct. Western tribes typically call each other Indians, but expect non-indigenous visitors to address them as Native Americans. Eastern indigenous peoples generally prefer to call themselves by their tribal name such as Catawba, Shawnee, Iroquois or Seneca, but use the terms Indigenous Americans or Native Americans when labeling groups of tribes.

In order to determine what term is preferred by academia, a survey of university web sites was carried out with the sophisticated software, utilized by People of One Fire researchers. All university departments of anthropology, except one, exclusively used the terms Native American or Indigenous. The exception was at the University of Georgia where the term “Indian” was used frequently on web-published archaeological reports. For example, their curriculum for teaching students how to classify pottery was labeled, “Georgia Indian Pottery Site.” An adolescent student, writing a term paper, would be far safer in sticking to the use of a tribal name, Native American or indigenous American, while avoiding the use of the word “Indian.”

The selection of which Southeastern tribe has the most complete and accurate history can be viewed as quite subjective. If evaluated for longest, documented histories, the best choices for an adolescent student would either be the Apalachee of Florida or the Pamunky (Powhatan) of Virginia. The Apalachee have been in almost continuous contact with Europeans since 1540. The members of the Powhatan Confederacy have been in continuous contact with English speaking peoples since 1607. The Muskogean tribes of the Southeast, such as the Alabama, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole, have the oldest histories, since some of them were building permanent towns as early as 1600 BC. However, the complexity of their heritage also means that what is thought to be factual today might change tomorrow with additional research.

Readers wishing to ask Richard Thornton questions concerning architecture, urban planning or Native American history may contact him at



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