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Native American, Native, American Indian, or Indian? That is the question.

February 27, 2008

Yesterday when I was visiting a theater class at the University of Illinois, one of the questions that a student asked was why I use the terms American Indian, or “Indian” as opposed to Native American in my work. The students were reading Indian Radio Days and listening to an audio version performed by WagonBurner Theater Troop for WSUI Radio in Iowa City, IA. Names, and what we call ourselves comes up several times in the play.

The quick and dirty answer is that “Indian” is the term I grew up using. It was the term my family used, still uses, although we know we didn’t come from India. When tribal people living on reservations say, “we’re ‘talking Indian,’” they mean Lakota, Dakota or Cherokee or whatever tribal language their tribe speaks. I have had the pleasure of working on two reservations, Rosebud Sioux Reservation, and the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina. Both communities still use the word “Indian” in everyday conversation. But they also use their tribal names.

Sometime in the 1970s, the term Native American was adopted by the academy in literature and history courses, and later as Native American Studies. Maybe it was an academic intervention to counter the “cowboy-Indian” motif.

Whatever the reason, there are a couple of things to remember about the importance of the word “Indians.” There are no treaties made between the United States and “Native Americans.” One of the first treaties made was between the Revolutionary government of United States [read Colonists] and the Delawares in 1778. Over the next 90 years the U.S. government negotiated another 370 treaties with “Indian” nations. [There’s that word again.] Today, federal Indian law is a cornerstone of American law. I continue to use “Indian” both out of habit, and because I believe it’s important to use terms outlined in our treaties that have become federal law. This is not to say however that I’m opposed to Native, or Native American, I just don’t often use that term.

In my lifetime I have experience being “Indian,” “Choctaw,” “Native American,” and “Native.” Nomenclature being what it is, I expect one of these days, I’ll be known as an “Indigenous Person,” or IP for short.

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