I am facing a language crisis. What is the difference between Native American, Indian, and American Indian?
This is my issue. In the past I have always been comfortable with using Indian and American Indian. However, having come to St.Olaf, three of my courses that have touched on the historic and ongoing histories of tribes and Indians prefer using Native Americans.
The difficulty is that in Montana we are comfortable with the ways in which Indian and American Indian are used. In government roles and public policy, the tribes prefer American Indian or Indian. Our local and state media all use American Indian or Indian. Our educational system uses “Indian Education for All” as a way of describing some of the state’s educational requirements. Before anyone misunderstands, let me clarify that “Indian Education for All” is described on the state’s Office of Public Instruction website as “integrating quality Indian education for all content with rigorous, standards-based instruction in all curriculum areas”; something that is very forward thinking in terms of education. The head of the Office of Public Instruction, Dennis Juneau, refers to herself as an “American Indian woman”. She is the person responsible for the language of the Montana educational system, including “Indian” and “American Indian” when used in any educational context and the above phrase. C.R. Anderson, my old middle school, uses “Indian Education” to describe the parts of their curriculum that meet the above state requirement of “Indian Education for All”. For several years, I worked with a group called the “Helena Indian Alliance”. Their website reads “Welcome to the Helena Indian Alliance… serving the Native American community in Helena since 1969”. At home, my mom, someone who grew up on the rez, refers to the Indians on the Fort Peck reservation as just that, Indians. The same is true of all of the other reservations in Montana and of anyone living beyond the rez. It is the language we all know and live with.
Here at St.Olaf, in my Sociology/Anthropology course and my History course, Native American is the preferred word. My professors are able to throw this word about nonchalantly, using it to describe the history and ongoing struggles of a grouping of different tribes and people. They use this word in a scholarly sense and that is exactly where I find fault. Last year I took an Art History course during which we covered a small portion of Native American art. The professor used “Native American” as the descriptive term. I had a conversation with him during which I talked about my discomfort with the word because I felt it was alien and dehumanizing. To me, “Native American” separates Indians into this category of people for scholarly study, just waiting for anthropologists and sociologists to descend with all of their instruments, charts, and preconceived notions.
While looking up this divide, I found a comment by Russell Means that summarizes certain understandings and connotations behind “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.” This last part is important because it helps clarify that if the knowledge is out there that so-and-so is a member of the Blackfoot or so-and-so is a member of the Cheyenne, it is considerate to refer to them as such. Christina Berry phrases it as such, “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.”
Because of this academic and scholarly language my professors’ use, I feel like I am losing a part of my culture and the language I know and recognize. This is the crisis I face. How do I maintain a language if I am separated from it? And if I do maintain my language, how do I keep misunderstandings from arising between me and others who are not use to it or do not understand the context behind the ways in which I (and others) use the language?