THE BLOG
10/08/2007 04:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Name "Indian" and Political Correctness

Indians, Native Americans, American Indians are all labels foisted upon the indigenous people of America and so what is a newspaper to do when selecting the supposed correct label?

In his book The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn, Joseph M. Marshall III reviewed all of these labels and then wrote, "We prefer to be identified by our specific tribes or nations, of which there are nearly five hundred ethnically identifiable in the United States."

He goes on, "However, in the interest of avoiding confusion within the pages of this work, I have chosen to used the word Indian mostly in those instances when there is a necessary reference to more than a specific tribe or native nation."

And so in this era of political correctness even the great Sicangu author, Joe Marshall, has to admit that he is also faced with this recurring dilemma. Any writer covering issues related to events and people associated with Indian country faces this same question and must decide whether to follow political correctness or go along with historic usage.

If one visits an Indian reservation (there's that word Indian again) and speaks to the elders of the tribe, he or she will find that they refer to themselves as "Indian," without reservation (no pun intended).

I am a firm believer that most historians are wrong when they credit Christopher Columbus for coining the word "Indian" because he thought he was landing his ships in India. In 1492 there was no country known as India. Instead that country was called Hindustan. I think that is closer to the truth that the Spanish padre that sailed with Columbus was so impressed with the innocence of the Natives he observed that he called them Los Ninos in Dios. My spelling may be wrong on the Spanish words, but the description by the padre means something like "Children of God."

After many years of usage the word Indios emerged and to this day the indigenous people of South and Central America are called Indios. I am told that as the word wound its way North it evolved into "Indian." Of course some will say that there was a place called the East Indies in 1492 and Columbus may have thought he was headed for that region.

So how and when did the efforts to politicize the name start? I suspect that some of it started when Native Americans enrolled in some of the white colleges. I think they found the word "Indian" offensive and set about to remake it. They found that the word Indian was often used in a derogatory fashion such as "drunken Indian" or "rotten Indian." Perhaps the white people would have found it more difficult to say "drunken Native American?"

And finally, when some Indian journalists made it to the newsrooms of large and prestigious mainstream newspapers, they reacted to the word "Indian" as they did when they were in college. They went to their editors and tried to impress upon them that the paper should no longer use the word "Indian," but should, instead, switch to Native American or Native.

I first ran across this sudden change when I was mailed a copy of my weekly column that had appeared in the Lincoln (Neb.) Star Journal. In every place I had used "Indian" the editorial page editor edited it to read "Native." Of course I was appalled. If I had intended to use "Native" I would have used it and I resented the fact that the EPE had changed the word in order to fit his presumption of political correctness.

I immediately dropped him a note and asked, "When you come across organizational names like National Congress of American Indians or National Indian Education Association are you going to change them to read National Congress of Native Americans or National Native Education Association."

How about newspapers like "Indian Country Today," my former weekly paper? "Native American Country Today" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The local daily newspaper in Rapid City, SD decided to drop the use of the word "Indian" and replace it with "Native American." I believe they did so when they, with unintended fanfare, used a headline that highlighted the word "Indian" when describing the new education director for the Rapid City Schools. A howl went up in the Indian community, but the howl was less about political correctness than about the bad usage of the name in that particular context. I believe it is a policy that needs to be reconsidered because anyone born in the United States of America is a Native American, but they are not American Indians.

Politically correct labels have been applied to other races in the past and since Indians are always the last to be labeled for anything, I suppose our time has come.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com)