“Indian” as a stand-alone term for describing peoples indigenous to the Americas has thankfully, and appropriately, been declining in usage over the past several decades, though it persists in its familiarity. Its persistence may be due to its deep and conflicting roots in the history of the Western Hemisphere and in the contemporary imaginations and attitudes of those who use it. The issue of the proper usage of this term and those related to it (“Native American,” “American Indian,” “Amerindian,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” and “First Nations,” among others) can be frustrating since the question can seem so much more substantial than it really is. After all, identifying the correct term and employing it rather than others is only a small step toward opening up the depths of historical or contemporary indigenous experiences. But an inquiry into the origins of the term can be a way of beginning a discussion of what students and practitioners of American studies and cultural studies ought to be learning and researching about the aboriginal history of the Americas.
Broad agreement exists that the term “Indian,” referring to people in the Americas, originated in Christopher Columbus’s mistaken idea that he had discovered a new route to India when he arrived in the Caribbean. Since Columbus’s errors of navigation and nomenclature, variations on this term have often been used derisively, as in its bastardized form “Injun” or in its contemporary use in Mexico and other places south of the United States to describe people thought of as poor, backward, and racially disadvantaged. In light of this, most scholars in Native American studies and many Native people themselves advise against the use of the word “Indian” alone as a noun (singular or plural) in favor of “American Indian,” though the adjectival form (as in “Indian culture”) is widely acceptable in the United States. This preference seems to derive from the fact that “American Indian” is a unique term but is also roughly equivalent in form to other terms that delineate ethnic and racial difference and identity in the United States, such as “Italian American,” “Asian American,” and “African American.”
“Native American” has gained currency more recently in the United States and beyond. Some American Indian people bristle at its use, though, in part because “Native American” would seem to refer to anyone who is born on the continent and perhaps also because the term first gained momentum among sympathetic non-Indian people in the 1970s—as if these sympathizers assumed that American Indian people, like African Americans, must surely have wanted to be referred to differently and so came up with what they imagined Indians wanted to be called. Still, one clear advantage of the term “Native American” is that it includes all indigenous people of the countries in the Americas. In the United States, that means it references Alaskan Eskimos, Inuits, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians, none of whom consider themselves American Indians. “Native,” a shortened form, has become a preferred term among many academics, students, and others.
The issue of proper nomenclature is nowhere near settled, and specific usages usually reflect regional and national histories and realities. In Mexico and other South American and Mesoamerican countries in which “Indian” (or “Indio”) is highly insulting, “indigenous” (or indigena) has come into usage. Many people within these same indigenous communities also reject the term “Latin America” to describe those countries, since, as indigenous people (many of whom do not speak Spanish), they do not consider themselves Latin. In Canada, the main political term for indigenous groups is “First Nations,” and the people who belong to those nations are “Aboriginal,” “Native,” or “First Nations” people.
Although nothing close to a consensus exists among Native people as to a preferred term for themselves in general, wide agreement has developed over the past several decades that it is most appropriate to use the names that specific tribal groups have for themselves (Diné, Dakota, Yupik, Ojibwe, or Yakama) or at least the names by which they have come to be known since the European colonization of the Americas (Navajo, Sioux, Eskimo, Chippewa, or Yakima, respectively). This specificity generally affords respect for the vast differences among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, standing in marked contrast to references to the Indian, the Native American, or the original American, which are monolithic and help bolster the misimpression that all indigenous people are the same. This preference has grown up alongside social and political movements focused on the needs and prospects of individual tribal nations and local communities rather than the more broadly defined politics of the 1970s. While that earlier era of activism and protest witnessed calls for wholesale changes in Indian affairs, the period since has seen a concern for economic development, cultural preservation, governmental reform, and community control at the local level.
In spite of these areas of wide agreement, many individual Native people in the United States feel completely comfortable calling themselves and other people “Indians.” A shortened form, usually represented in writing as “Ind’n” (or, in the shorthand people use in the digital world, “ndn”), speaks to the persistence and acceptability of the term in urban, rural, and reservation settings. Thus while the movement toward understanding oneself as a member of a specific tribal group is one contemporary dynamic, a significant sense of generational cohesiveness is also common among indigenous youth.
The fact that most college students do not even have this basic knowledge about how to refer to indigenous people of the Americas speaks to how little the average student who grows up in the United States learns about Natives in elementary and secondary school. Much of this ignorance results from the persistence of poor school curriculums in regard to the history and contemporary realities of Native life, but it also reflects the fact that the vast majority of US schoolchildren have had little or no exposure to living, breathing Indian people, except perhaps on a family vacation through the Southwest or someplace else where large concentrations of Natives live. Nor do they encounter Native recording artists, television or film actors, authors, or politicians, though there are some exceptions of historical (including Will Rogers, Jim Thorpe, the ballerina Maria Tallchief, and US vice president Charles Curtis), more recent (including activist/actor Russell Means or country singer Rita Coolidge, who identifies as being Cherokee), and contemporary public figures who have attained some notoriety. Even in the major cities with the highest concentrations of Natives (Minneapolis and Oakland, for instance), no single neighborhood has much more than 10 percent of Natives living in it.
Indian people, then, for the most part live either in enclaves in which they are a major focus of social life (reservations or towns bordering them) or in places where they are mostly invisible to the people with whom they share the world. Outside of occasional news stories on exceptionally severe social problems (poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, poor health) or feature stories on cultural events (powwows, art exhibits), neither local nor national media pay much attention to Native issues. While this might be said for any number of other groups in the Americas, none share the history or contemporary situation of Native Americans. To use just the most obvious example, no other group in the United States or Canada has an entire federal bureaucracy dedicated to it as Natives do with, respectively, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). Taxpayers in these countries support their governments’ day-to-day managing of the lives of Native people in spite of the fact that few of those taxpayers can say much about what their money funds.
Being inclusive of Native American experiences in American studies thus requires something more than creating a new branch of the field that accounts for yet another group clamoring for the attention of scholars and students. Craig Womack makes this point forcefully in his work on Native American literature. “Tribal literatures,” he writes, “are not some branch waiting to be grafted onto the main trunk. Tribal literatures are the tree, the oldest literatures in the Americas, the most American of American literatures. We are the canon. Without Native American literature, there is no American canon. . . . Let Americanists struggle for their place in the canon” (1999, 6–7). Native American studies is an invitation for American studies to rethink its understanding of the continent and the people who have made it their home. It requires attention to the ways in which historians have often skewed their work at the expense of an accurate portrait of how Native people have developed their own sophisticated ways of life, including responses to the circumstances that the European colonization of the Americas brought to them. But confronting ignorance also entails recognition of the contemporary realities that Native people inhabit.
Though American studies, when it has paid attention to Native Americans at all, has mostly focused on historical topics, other recent approaches in the field could create deeper scholarly understandings of features of contemporary Native life. Native American literature and visual art, for example, are now established as serious areas of artistic achievement and scholarly study, but numerous forms of contemporary Native expression have yet to capture much of the attention of the scholarly world, and interdisciplinary work could reveal important levels of meaning. Sporadic attempts have been made over the past two decades to establish Native versions of speculative fiction, graphic novels, comic books, and video games (Justice 2005; Mindt 2005). These attempts, many of them interesting in and of themselves, could lead to rich discussions about what it means for indigenous youth either to grow up without representations of themselves in the popular culture they experience or to only access indigenous expressions within popular culture in highly limited forms. Similar work could be done in contemporary Native music, including jazz, rock, and hip-hop, or in the blending of traditional and contemporary crafts. Studies have barely begun of the development of professionalism or entrepreneurialism among Natives or of women’s involvement in traditionally male roles. Along with striking a balance between the historical and the contemporary, American studies students and scholars would do well to balance topics that are trendy (Native American Barbie doll or cruise packages marketed to Native professionals) with those that are not (the structure of the BIA and the history of federal Indian policymaking).
Impressive gains have been made in American studies, cultural studies, and other academic fields over the past three decades in developing stronger scholarship regarding Native people, their histories, and their contemporary lives. Given that virtually every square foot of the Americas has an aboriginal past and much of the hemisphere has an aboriginal present, a fair question would seem to be why there has not been more. Students and scholars alike would do well to ask themselves whether American studies can consider itself “American” without American Indians being much more central to how the field defines itself.