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Indian, American Indian, and Native Americans: Counterfeit Identities1

In our cultural renaissance there are certain concepts and movements which we should understand and give attention to. The first of these is linguistic imperialism.

A Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization, by Howard Adams, 1995


           In his recent article "The Colonialism of Names" (Winds of Change, Winter, 1997), Dr. Jack Forbes argued for throwing off the names of colonialism and insisted that Indigenous Peoples be treated as human beings worthy of respect. I totally agree with his thinking and suggest we begin by refusing to use "Indian," "American Indian," or "Native American" to identify the Indigenous Peoples of the United States. I believe these words are names of colonialism and reflect the linguistic imperialism that Howard Adams cautions us about in the above quote.  Colonialism refers to when an alien people invade the territory inhabited by people of a different race and culture  and establish political, social, spiritual, intellectual, and economic domination over that territory. Colonialism includes territorial and resource appropriate by the colonizer and loss of sovereignty by the colonized.

         In my most recent writings, I consistently use the terms "Indigenous" and "First Nations" Peoples. For me, using these terms is an important part of my intellectual decolonization and liberation from linguistic imperialism. I prefer using Indigenous Peoples because it is an internationally accepted descriptor for peoples
who are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the lands, and have suffered and survived a history of
colonialism (for example, see the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, www.halcyon.com/FWDP/drft9329.html). I like the term because it is accurate and reflects who we really are. For instance, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981, defines indigenous "as having originated  in...or living naturally in a particular region or environment" whereas, Indian is defined "as a native  inhabitant of the
subcontinent of India or of the East Indies." Adding American to the term Indian does little more than reflect the 
more recent colonization of Indigenous Peoples by the United States government. I also prefer First Nations
because it suggests that such persons are the original peoples of the land and hold aboriginal title to the lands they occupy. The term also has a strong spiritual foundation because it comes from tribal elders in British Columbia who maintain the traditions of First Nations include a belief in a Creator who placed their Nations on the land to care for and control them.

            The terms Indigenous and First Nations Peoples still generalize the identity of the more than 550 Indigenous groups in the lower forty-eight states and Alaska. However, I believe they are empowering "generalized" descriptors because they accurately describe the political, cultural, and geographical identities, and struggles of all aboriginal peoples in the United States. I no longer use "Indian," "American Indian," or "Native American" because I consider them to be oppressive, "counterfeit identities." A counterfeit identity is not only bogus and misleading, it subjugates and controls theidentity of Indigenous Peoples.

             There are several additional problems with using the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American.  First, they are inaccurate and confusing labels. For example, Indigenous Peoples in the United States are not from India and, therefore, not Indians. They are the descendants of the First Nations of these lands. The term Native American is confusing because anyone born in the Americas can be referred to as a native American. Second, the terms threaten the sovereignty and nationhood of Indigenous Peoples and undermine our right to use our tribal affiliation as our preeminent national identity. The terms also subsume our original identity ("Indigenous Peoples," who are the first peoples of  the land) and imply foreigners ("Indians"). Moreover, they are highly inaccurate for tribal groups who continue to resist European American "citizenship" and colonization. Third, they are historically entangled in American racist discourses that claim Europeans "discovered" a "new world" that needed to be "settled," "claimed," and "civilized."  This myth-making has promoted the notion that the original inhabitants were unable to settle, claim, and civilize these lands because they were "nomadic " (unsettled) and "savage" (uncivilized) peoples. Fourth, the terms dehumanize and stigmatize Indigenous Peoples by using stereotypical "American Indian" images as emblems for selling products and mascots for sports teams. Indeed, educator Paulo Freire, who is most noted for the promotion of critical consciousness among the oppressed, suggests that through the process of dehumanization the consciousness of the oppressor transforms Indigenous identity into a commodity of its domination and disposal.

          The continued use of Indian, American Indian, and Native American maintains counterfeit identities for
Indigenous Peoples. As part of the decolonization of Indigenous scholarship and thinking, I suggest these terms must be discarded in favor of more empowering descriptors. To me, ceasing to call Indigenous Peoples Indians, American Indians, or Native Americans is more than an attempt at "political correctness," or a change in semantics. It is an act of intellectual liberation that corrects a distorting narrative of imperialist "discovery and
progress" that has been maintained far too long by Europeans and European Americans.

Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, a citizen of the Sahnish (Arikara) and Hidatsa First Nations, is Assistant Professor and Director of the Office for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice in the School of Social Welfare, University of Kansas.

1 Yellow Bird, Michael. (1999). Indian, American Indian, and Native  Americas: Counterfeit Identities. Winds of Change: A Magazine for American Indian Education and Opportunity, (14), 1.  
Reproduced here with author's permission.