American Spirit: Indians to Aboriginals, what is the ongoing Native American name controversy all about?
The discussion on how to address indigenous Americans has been a long-standing one. In the past five centuries or so, a myriad of terms has been used as referents including American Indian, Native American, Aboriginal, Alaskan Natives, First Nation an Indigenous. While some of these terms have been used interchangeably, others pertain to specific entities. Historically, many exonyms have been used to refer to the native people who called the lands their home, long before any European settler set foot upon American soil in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of these names have French, Spanish or other European language roots and were used by early explorers and colonists. Some were attempted translations of endonyms from the language of the natives by the colonists, while others were pejorative terms stemming from prejudice and fear amid periods of conflict between cultures, like the American Indian wars.
The debate over the right nomenclature to use for the Indigenous American people is called the 'Native American name controversy'. It is an ongoing discussion about changing terminology that Indigenous people use to describe themselves, as well as how they would prefer to be referred to by foreigners. The Indigenous communities are diverse, and so there hasn't been a general consensus over the use of a particular name to describe them. Aside from the fact that most people prefer to be referred to by their particular nation, the terms also significantly vary by region and age. The issue here, however, is more about retaining identity, than just nomenclature. Yet, in terms of the spiritual and cultural essence of these broad groups of people, assigning a name like 'Aboriginal' or 'Alaskan Native' deprives them of their own identity and compels them to take on a new one, instead. It is a rather perplexing discussion, that is still underway.
Per historical records, we know that the term 'Indian' was coined by Christopher Columbus in the 16th century, to describe the inhabitants of the island that he mistook as India since that was the nation he had set out on an expedition to look for. A more romanticized theory of the coinage proposes that Columbus was marveled by the physical spirit and nature of the Taino people that he had encountered in what is now Puerto Rico. He concluded that they must have been made from the body of God, or 'Du Corpus In Deo', and the name 'Indian' comes from 'In Deo'.
But truly, he fostered the use of the term 'Indios', which means 'person from the Indus Valley' (which was where the South Asian country came to be) to refer to the people he had discovered in the 'New World'. However, it also crucial to note that 'Indian' was never used prior to colonization. The term 'America' was used to refer to the continents of the Western Hemisphere somewhere around 1507, when German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, designed a world map and named them after an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. Thus, 'American' was incorporated as a prefix to 'Indian' to distinguish between the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere and those in South Asia.
Activists in the United States and Canada rejected the term 'American Indian' in the 1960s, as it came to be seen as an inapplicable title or misnomer and sometimes even held racist implications. So 'Native American' soon replaced the previously used term, and became the preferential appellation. But many Indigenous individuals living in the north of the Rio Grande (modern-day New Jersey) continued to refer to themselves as Indian. The reality is that once a name is suited to common usage, changing it is almost impossible. But a debatable fact about using 'Native American' to describe the Indigenous people is that 'America' was named after an Italian explorer, while 'Native' is a word used to describe a person anywhere, for instance, "I'm a native of Boston."
The word 'Aboriginal' also came to be used in English to refer to various indigenous people until about 1910, but it is not a term that they use for themselves. The adjective 'Aboriginal' as well the noun 'Aborigine' can be traced back to ancient Rome. It came from a Latin phrase meaning 'from the origin' and was used by Romans to refer to a group of ancient people in Italy. Hence, most people assume it means 'the first inhabitants', but the word also holds a contrasting meaning. The connotation also stems from 'Ab', a Latin prefix that translated to 'away from' or 'not'. Essentially Aboriginal could mean 'not original'.
Today, English-speakers around the world usually use the term to refer to Indigenous Australians. In Canada, it is used to describe Aboriginal Canadians. Yet, despite heavy criticism, 'Aboriginal' is still widely used by governments, businesses, and media organizations to describe the general Indigenous population.
The term 'Alaskan Native' is a referral to the Indigenous people in Alaska comprising the Haida, Inuit, Iñupiat, Tlingit, Alutiiq, Cup'ik, Aleut, Athabascan, and Yup'ik people. European settlers originally called the people living in the American Arctic, 'Eskimo', but the term is now seen as derogatory, specifically in Canada and Greenland, because it means "eaters of raw flesh" in the Abenaki and Ojibwa languages.
In the 1960s, the Indigenous people incorporated self-names, such as 'Yupik' for those hailing from southern and western Alaska and the 'Inuit' for those of northern and eastern Alaska, as well as the whole of Canada. The era also saw Alaska's aboriginal people initiating various land claims. These diverse societies, including the Yupik, Inuit, Aleut, Gwich'in, De Xinag and Tanaina, adopted the umbrella term 'Native Alaskan', as a show of unity.
'First Nations' was a term that emerged in the 1970s, when Native Americans in Canada's Manitoba province, including the Ojibway, Dene, Dakota, Metis and Ininew (Cree), adopted the term as their preferred self-referent. It was used to represent historical facts surrounding indigenous people more accurately, while activists of the civil rights era believed that the term was devoid of any negative connotations, unlike those associated with the previous terms. The Candian government adopted the use of the phrase but did not designate a legal definition to it. In addition, the Métis and Inuit did not want to be referred to as 'First Nation' either. So, 'Aboriginal Nations' is generally used to describe the Métis and Inuit, while 'First Nations' is used to describe the Indigenous people of Canada in aggregate.
'Indigenous' is being used as of recently because some perceive it as providing a connection with the land. Native people had begun to encourage others to address them by their tribal self-names whenever possible by the end of the 20th century. The word 'Indigenous' was deemed more suitable when interpreting their shared political identity. This preference was recognized by the United Nations in 2000 when it established the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and passed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The term 'Indigenous peoples' was first used in an official political declaration at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. Prior to that, the phrase had been "still under debate" for common usage in official UN documents. The term, however, is not favored among some Canadian First Nations because its French equivalent, 'indigène', has been used in the past in a derogatory approach towards them.
American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy, and redemption.