The English term ‘Indians’, based upon a mistaken identification by Columbus, is often (mis)applied to North Americans and Latin Americans of Indigenous heritage, and it is a term that is viewed differently by different people and different groups and associations, and in different social contexts.

(see  http://www.infoplease.com/spot/aihmterms2.html#naja  -  copied below). 

This is discussed briefly on p. 7 of the textbook (2nd edition), and will also be discussed briefly in class.   The use of the term ‘Indian’ versus ‘Native American’ is given a fuller historical discussion at the URL http://www.infoplease.com/spot/aihmterms.html  & see below.   While it is preferable to use individual “tribal” designations (e.g. Navajos, Apaches, Hopis) in referring to these specific groups, referring to the groups and the people in aggregate in North America and Canada and in Latin America, can be accomplished in English with the terms ‘Indigenous Peoples’, ‘Aboriginal Peoples’, and ‘First Nations Peoples’, as well as Indians’ or ‘Native Americans’.


In Mexico and Guatemala, usage of the Spanish term ‘indio’ is less ambiguous, clearly pejorative, and should be avoided.   It is nearly universally a disrespectful term of disparagement, and the diminutive form ‘indito’ is understandably viewed as even more disparaging.   As in English, in Spanish it is preferable to use individual “tribal’ or ethnolinguistic designations (e.g. zapotecos, mixes, mayas [or yucatecos]), bearing in mind that terms of self designation for ethnolinguistic groups are often different from the Spanish terms for them (e.g.  tzeltales usually refer to themselves in the Tzeltal language as Batz’il Winik), but when referring in Spanish to indigenous peoples of Latin America either in general or in specific countries, the terms ‘indigenas’, ‘naturales’, and ‘gente indigena’ are the more polite forms of reference.





The usage of the terms Maya, Mayas, Mayans, and Mayan has long been a problem for scholars.   Some have said Maya is a noun and should be used as such, and that Mayan is an adjective and should be used as an adjective.  This usage would therefore omit the word Mayans.


Others use the word Maya to refer to the people and cultures, and Mayan to refer to any or all of their languages (of which there are approximately 30 mutually unintelligible ones), and by this usage the word Mayans would not be found (the people would be Mayas).

The word Maya originally referred only to the Yucatec language.   Mayan came to be applied by scholars to the family of related languages that included Yucatec, and then to any language within that family, while the plural form Mayans then referred to the speakers of any of the Mayan languages.  

A discussion of these terms can be found at http://www.pauahtun.org/Calendar/maya_vs_mayan.html  where John Justeson’s usage is presented and justified.  His usage includes Maya only for the Yucatec language, Mayan for the language family, and Mayans for the speakers of any of the 30 Mayan languages.  (There is no single Mayan culture, so that usage is not applicable).  Any individual language (Yucatec, Tzotzil, Tojolabal) will be referred to with the singular term (which will also be used for the culture) and the people speaking it will be referred to with the plural form of that language.  The same rule is applied to other languages of Mesoamerica;  for example:  Zapotec  (the language, and also used as an adjective preceding the word culture’ when that entity is referenced),  Zapotecs (the people) ;  Tzeltal (the language), and also used as an adjective preceding the word ‘culture’ when that entity is referenced, Tzeltals (the people).  An individual of the Zapotec ethnolinguistic grouping would be called a Zapotec speaker, an individual belonging to the Tzeltal ethnolinguistic grouping would be called a Tzeltal speaker.   This usage will be employed in this course. 




American Indian versus Native American

A once-heated issue has sorted itself out


by Borgna Brunner


Are the terms American Indian and Native American essentially synonyms, in the same way that the terms black and African American are often used interchangeably? Or is using the term American Indian instead of Native American the equivalent of using Negro instead of black—offensive and anachronistic? Is the insistence on using Native American to the exclusion of all other terms a sign of being doctrinaire?


Culture Wars


While these were once raging questions in the culture wars, they have now happily sorted themselves out. Over the years, the people whom these words are meant to represent have made their preference clear: the majority of American Indians/Native Americans believe it is acceptable to use either term, or both. Many have also suggested leaving such general terms behind in favor of specific tribal designations. As the publisher and editor of The Navajo Times, the largest Native American–owned weekly newspaper, puts it, "I . . . would rather be known as, 'Tom Arviso Jr., a member of the Navajo tribe,' instead of 'Arviso, a Native American or American Indian.' This gives an authentic description of my heritage, rather than lumping me into a whole race of people."


A Medieval Misnomer


As we learned in grade school, Indian was the name Columbus mistakenly applied to the people he encountered when he arrived in what he believed was the "Indies," the medieval name for Asia. Introduced in the 1960s, the term Native American offered a way of eradicating confusion between the indigenous people of the Americas and the indigenous people of India. The term American Indian also served that purpose, but raised other problems: the use of Indian in any form had begun to be seen by some as pejorative.


Doing Away with Cowboy-and-Indian Stereotypes


Particularly in academic circles, the term Native American became the preferred term of respect, and a remedy for avoiding dehumanizing stereotypes, whether of the bloodthirsty savage or the Tonto-like Noble Savage. For a time, using Native American signaled a progressive and enlightened consciousness, in much the same way that using Asian instead of Oriental does. Use of Indian struck some as out of touch, or worse—a mark of ignorance or bigotry.


A "Generic Government Term"


But objections to the term Native American also arose. The term struck many as dry and bureaucratic, in much the same way that some dislike the Census Bureau's use of Hispanic as an umbrella term to cover the whole of the U.S.'s diverse Spanish-speaking population. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs elaborates:


The term, 'Native American,' came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Russell Means, the Lakota activist and founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has strongly rejected Native American in favor of Indian:

I abhor the term Native American. It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. These are the American Samoans, the Micronesians, the Aleuts, the original Hawaiians, and the erroneously termed Eskimos, who are actually Upiks and Inupiats. And, of course, the American Indian.

I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins . . . As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity . . . We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.

"I am an American Indian, Not a Native American!"
statement by Russell Means

Peaceful Coexistence


As The American Heritage Book of English Usage points out, "the acceptance of Native American has not brought about the demise of Indian. Unlike Negro, which was quickly stigmatized once black became preferred, Indian never fell out of favor with a large segment of the American population."

Now almost every style and usage guide describes these terms as synonyms that can be used interchangeably. In recent decades, other terms have also come into use, including Amerindian, indigenous people, and Native, expanding the vocabulary for referring to indigenous people of the United States rather than circumscribing it. Many people will no doubt favor one appellation over another—and will have strong reasons for doing so—but such choices are (or should be) no longer accompanied by a sense of righteousness that one term is superior to the other. This simply isn't true.


"We Will Call Ourselves Any Damn Thing We Choose"


More Naming Conventions

for Native North Americans of Canada

·  Aboriginal People

·  First Nations

·  Métis

·  Inuit

for Native North Americans of Alaska

·  Eskimo

·  Aleut

No doubt the most significant reason that an inclusive attitude toward these terms of identity has developed is their common usage among Native peoples. A 1995 Census Bureau Survey of preferences for racial and ethnic terminology (there is no more recent survey) indicated that 49% of Native people preferred being called American Indian, 37% preferred Native American, 3.6% preferred "some other term," and 5% had no preference. As The American Heritage Guide to English Usage points out, "the issue has never been particularly divisive between Indians and non-Indians. While generally welcoming the respectful tone of Native American, Indian writers have continued to use the older name at least as often as the newer one."


The criticism that Indian is hopelessly tainted by the ignorant or romantic stereotypes of popular American culture can be answered, at least in part, by pointing to the continuing use of this term among American Indians themselves. Indeed, Indian authors and those sympathetic to Indian causes often prefer it for its unpretentious familiarity as well as its emotional impact, as in this passage from the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday's memoir The Names (1976): 'It was about this time that [my mother] began to see herself as an Indian. That dim native heritage became a fascination and a cause for her.'

"Names and Labels: Social, Racital, and Ethnic Terms: Indian", The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996.

As Christina Berry, a Cherokee writer and producer of the website All Things Cherokee, counsels:

In the end, the term you choose to use (as an Indian or non-Indian) is your own personal choice. Very few Indians that I know care either way. The recommended method is to refer to a person by their tribe, if that information is known. The reason is that the Native peoples of North America are incredibly diverse. It would be like referring both a Romanian and an Irishman as European. . . . [W]henever possible an Indian would prefer to be called a Cherokee or a Lakota or whichever tribe they belong to. This shows respect because not only are you sensitive to the fact that the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American are an over simplification of a diverse ethnicity, but you also show that you listened when they told what tribe they belonged to.

When you don't know the specific tribe simply use the term which you are most comfortable using. The worst that can happen is that someone might correct you and open the door for a thoughtful debate on the subject of political correctness and its impact on ethnic identity. What matters in the long run is not which term is used but the intention with which it is used.

What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness
by Christina Berry, All Things Cherokee




The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. "Names and Labels: Social, Racital, and Ethnic Terms."
American Indian
Native American

"American Indian vs. Native American: Which is the proper term?"

"Watch Your Language: Words Have Power"
Tom Arviso Jr.
Society of Professional Journalists

"What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness"
by Christina Berry, All Things Cherokee

"A Statistical Analysis of the CPS Supplement on Race and Ethnic Origin," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau Survey, May 1995. (PDF)




What Style and Usage Guides Say

American Indian versus Native American


by Borgna Brunner


While many textbook publishers play it safe and use only Native American, the majority of style and usage guides state that American Indian and Native American are synonymous.

From the Native American Journalist Association (http://www.naja.com)
The Reading Red Report: Native Americans in the News (http://www.naja.com/docs/red.doc)

"The terms 'Native American' and 'American Indian' should be used in U.S. mainstream newspaper stories. Use of 'Indian' alone generally is discouraged. However, it may be used in quotes, and also in terms such as 'urban Indian.' 'Native' alone has come into common usage. It is unacceptable to use 'native American' with a lower case 'n' in native. Native peoples must be allowed to define their own names in the same way other racial or ethnic groups have defined their names. But the only truly accurate terms are specific names of tribal nations, whether they are names of the 560 federally recognized ones, the many other tribes seeking recognition from the U.S. government or the multitude of tribes throughout the other countries in the Americas."

From The News Watch Style Guide (http://newswatch.sfsu.edu/)

"American Indian/Native American: The two terms are synonymous. Some indigenous people in the U.S. prefer 'American Indian' to 'Native American.' It's best to use individual preference, if known. When possible, use national affiliation rather than the generic 'American Indian' or 'Native American,' for example, Navajo, Hopi, Cherokee. To specify someone was born in the U.S., but isn't Native American, use native-born."

From Association of American University Presses, in Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing

"American Indian: This term is favored by some over Native American, which is also accepted. Whenever possible, writers are encouraged to use the name of the specific people, e.g., Cherokee or Crow, rather than this umbrella term."

From American Psychological Association (APA), in Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

"American Indian and Native American are both accepted terms for referring to indigenous peoples of North America, although Native American is a broader designation because the U.S. government includes Hawaiians and Samoans in this category . . . Authors are encouraged to name the participants’ specific groups."


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