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Tim Giago: Stop trying to rename 'Indians'

Indians, Native Americans, American Indians are all labels foisted upon the indigenous people of America and so what is a newspaper to do when selecting the supposed correct label?

In his book “The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn,” Joseph M. Marshall III reviewed all of these labels and then wrote, “We prefer to be identified by our specific tribes or nations, of which there are nearly five hundred ethnically identifiable in the United States.”

He goes on, “However, in the interest of avoiding confusion within the pages of this work, I have chosen to used the word Indian mostly in those instances when there is a necessary reference to more than a specific tribe or native nation.”

And so in this era of political correctness even the great Sicangu author, Joe Marshall, has to admit that he is also faced with this recurring dilemma. Any writer covering issues related to events and people associated with Indian country faces this same question and must decide whether to follow political correctness or go along with historic usage.

If one visits an Indian reservation (there’s that word Indian again) and speaks to the elders of the tribe, he or she will find that they refer to themselves as “Indian,” without reservation (no pun intended).

I am a firm believer that most historians are wrong when they credit Christopher Columbus for coining the word “Indian” because he thought he was landing his ships in India. In 1492 there was no country known as India. Instead that country was called Hindustan. I think that is closer to the truth that the Spanish padre that sailed with Columbus was so impressed with the innocence of the Natives he observed that he called them Los Ninos in Dios. My spelling may be wrong on the Spanish words, but the description by the padre means something like “Children of God.”

After many years of usage the word Indios emerged and to this day the indigenous people of South and Central America are called Indios. I am told that as the word wound its way North it evolved into “Indian.” Of course some will say that there was a place called the East Indies in 1492 and Columbus may have thought he was headed for that region.

So how and when did the efforts to politicize the name start? I suspect that some of it started when Native Americans enrolled in some of the white colleges. I think they found the word “Indian” offensive and set about to remake it. They found that the word Indian was often used in a derogatory fashion such as “drunken Indian” or “rotten Indian.” Perhaps the white people would have found it more difficult to say “drunken Native American?”

And finally, when some Indian journalists made it to the newsrooms of large and prestigious mainstream newspapers, they reacted to the word “Indian” as they did when they were in college. The went to their editors and tried to impress upon them that the paper should no longer use the word “Indian,” but should, instead, switch to Native American or Native.

I first ran across this sudden change when I was mailed a copy of my weekly column that had appeared in the Lincoln (Neb.) Star Journal. In every place I had used “Indian” the editorial page editor edited it to read “Native.” Of course I was appalled. If I had intended to use “Native” I would have used it and I resented the fact that the EPE had changed the word in order to fit his presumption of political correctness.

I immediately dropped him a note and asked, “When you come across organizational names like National Congress of American Indians or National Indian Education Association are you going to change them to read National Congress of Native Americans or National Native Education Association.”

How about newspapers like “Indian Country Today,” my former weekly paper? “Native American Country Today” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The local daily newspaper in Rapid City, SD decided to drop the use of the word “Indian” and replace it with “Native American.” I believe they did so when they, with unintended fanfare, used a headline that highlighted the word “Indian” when describing the new education director for the Rapid City Schools. A howl went up in the Indian community, but the howl was less about political correctness than about the bad usage of the name in that particular context. I believe it is a policy that needs to be reconsidered because anyone born in the United States of America is a Native American, but they are not American Indians.

It is confusing enough trying to figure out what to call Blacks, Hispanics or Asians without adding to the confusion by trying to rename American Indians.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: The origins of Native American Day (10/1)
Tim Giago: Growing up in Kyle, Pine Ridge Reservation (9/24)
Tim Giago: Healing the wounds that haunt Pine Ridge (9/17)
Tim Giago: Closing a dark chapter at Pine Ridge (9/10)
Tim Giago: AIM responsible for Anna Mae's death (9/4)
Tim Giago: 'Commod bods' going out of fashion (8/27)
Tim Giago: Tribes should include all their citizens (8/20)
Tim Giago: Hollywood dashes hopes of 'Wounded Knee' (8/6)
Tim Giago: Honeymoon is over for California tribes (7/30)
Tim Giago: Modern Indian heroes compiled in book (7/23)
Tim Giago: Media errors in 'State of Native Nations' (7/9)
Tim Giago: Columnist disparages Native people (7/2)
Tim Giago: Pine Ridge still needs a hand up (6/25)
Tim Giago: The great horse of the Pawnee Nation (6/18)
Tim Giago: Indians still the most misunderstood (6/11)
Tim Giago: The theft of the sacred Black Hills (6/4)
Tim Giago: Clear and present danger to sovereignty (5/28)
Tim Giago: Rich tribes still not helping poor ones (5/21)
Tim Giago: Standing ground against 'Dropout Nation' (5/14)
Tim Giago: Indian prophecies and medicine (5/7)
Tim Giago: Help the poorest county in America (4/30)
Tim Giago: Honoring those who died at Washita (4/23)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media ignores the real issues (4/16)
Tim Giago: Racism and hypocrisy over Imus (4/11)
Tim Giago: Kill the Indian and save the child (4/9)
Tim Giago: The dark legacy of boarding schools (4/2)
Tim Giago: Tribes continue to surrender sovereignty (3/26)
Tim Giago: Venezuela steps up for Indian nations (3/19)
Tim Giago: Cherokee Nation votes out Freedmen (3/12)
Tim Giago: Oglala Lakota Tribe still struggling (3/5)
Tim Giago: A view from South Dakota, the 'red' state (2/26)
Tim Giago: 'Chief Illiniwek' does his last dance (2/19)
Tim Giago: Greed is the new God in Indian Country (2/12)
Giago discusses 'dark legacy' of boarding schools (2/5)
Tim Giago: Writing helped heal wounds of abuse (1/29)
Tim Giago: How many others will die over Iraq? (1/22)
Tim Giago: Apache journalist opens doors in media (1/15)
Tim Giago: Newspaper fills gap in South Dakota (1/8)
Tim Giago: Recognize an Indian hero in the new year (1/2)
Tim Giago: Christmas and Lakota traditions (12/25)
Tim Giago: Sen. Johnson never wanted the spotlight (12/18)
Tim Giago: The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (12/11)
Tim Giago: R-word just as insulting as the N-word (12/4)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media lacking in accuracy (11/27)
Tim Giago: Thanksgiving - A holiday of the imagination (11/22)
Tim Giago: State stifling growth on reservations (11/20)
Tim Giago: Taking stock of Election Day 2006 (11/13)
Tim Giago: Few roles for Indians in Hollywood (11/6)
Tim Giago: Freedom of the press has a chance (10/31)
Tim Giago: Important election day for South Dakota (10/24)
Tim Giago: White media ignores Indian contributions (10/17)
Tim Giago: Termination a dirty word in Indian Country (10/10)
Giago: Domestic violence from a male perspective (10/3)
Tim Giago: Culturecide started with innocent children (09/19)
Tim Giago: Indian people mark 500 years of terrorism (9/11)
Tim Giago: Lawsuit challenges church on abuse (9/6)