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My mother’s side of the family never immigrated to North America — they’ve always been here. While many people can trace their family history back to a great-great-great-great grandfather who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the famed “American Dream,” my ancestors inhabited the lands and waters in the Great Lakes region since the beginning of time itself. We are Anishinaabe peoples, also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa. My tribal nation, commonly known as the Soo Tribe, holds a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with the United States government.
My grandparents met and married on reservation land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan but moved down to the Detroit area after my grandfather returned from the Korean War. My mother, and later I, grew up as an urban Native American. On the other side of my family, my dad grew up near Delhi, India, and moved to the United States when he was 27 to pursue a medical education.
I spent my childhood moving among cities during the school year — Detroit, Boston and, now, Ann Arbor — and the reservation during the summer.
While my mother’s family and I identify as Ojibwe, I have always been an “Indian” in the eyes of non-Native people. Indigenous identities in the United States are often described with this term.
Whether it was from elementary school teachers, elderly white neighbors or history textbooks, the label has always defined me. As I headed into my first year at Yale University, I felt confident that I would be in a place where the campus community would challenge this racial terminology. In the past few years, however, I have encountered non-Native people — both professors and students — using the word to describe Native Americans, seemingly without a second thought. In these moments, I felt demeaned and reduced to “just an Indian.”
I am an indigenous woman from an Ojibwe tribal nation in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I am descended from a long line of passionate Ojibwe mothers and grandmothers. I am a junior at an elite academic institution pursuing a degree in ethnicity, race and migration. These pieces of my identity coexist and intersect with one another.
People at Yale reflexively designate me and other Native people as “Indians” in classroom settings as well as in casual conversations: during the first week of my freshman year, I talked to a senior who wanted to know which “Indian tribe” I belonged to. The continued use of the word by non-Native students and professors to describe indigenous people ignores the fact that it is an archaic label that fails to represent the strength and diversity of indigenous peoples across North America.
In an interview with Ronald Wright for Stolen Continents, indigenous author Lenore Keeshig-Tobias exclaims: “How I loathe the term ‘Indian.’ ‘Indian’ is used to sell things — souvenirs, cigars, cigarettes, gasoline, cars … ‘Indian’ is a figment of the white man’s imagination.”
I recently sat down with Gabriella Blatt, a past president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, to discuss the use of “Indian” at U.S. institutions of higher learning. As president of the organization, she focused her work at Yale on increasing Native representation and raising awareness of contemporary issues.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable to use the word ‘Indian,’ ” she told me, “especially within classes that focus on ethnicity, race and migration or indigenous studies. When people use the term in my classes, it makes me feel like an artifact of the past. If you look at it, a lot of the racial slurs against Native Americans are derived from the word ‘Indian.’ ”
The usage also promotes the problematic assumption that Native Americans comprise a single, monolithic community.
Today, there are over five million indigenous people and 573 federally recognized Native nations within the boundaries of the United States, and each of these tribal nations has a distinct history, language, culture and way of governance. For example, while the Blackfoot and other Great Plains tribal communities historically lived in teepees for maximum mobility, the Iroquois constructed more permanent longhouses of wood and tree bark. Ojibwe peoples of the Great Lakes region incorporate the Seven Grandfather Teachings into their cultural beliefs and ceremonies, while many Pueblo traditional beliefs are grounded in a relationship with ancestral spirits called kachinas.
In light of this diversity, “Indian” is an insufficient way to reflect the sovereign status of individual tribes and the cultural differences among them. It is as non-specific of a description as “European” would be to describe both French and German people.
The issue becomes more complex, however, when generational differences and government terminology are taken into account.
Because these challenges are fairly contemporary, older Native American individuals often identify more with the name they have been called their entire lives. In a 2015 interview with Native Times, an elder from Standing Rock said, “If some Indians want to be called Native Americans or Natives, let them be called that, but I was born an Indian and I shall die an Indian.”
The U.S. government continues to use the term when naming policies and executive agencies. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to be the name of the agency under the Department of the Interior that manages land held in trust for Native American tribes. Politicians from both sides of the aisle use “Indian Country” to describe the collective of Native communities and lands within the boundaries of the United States. The use of “Indian” in this way is codified into government structure — making it legally accurate, though still problematic, reflecting the centuries-long history of the federal government’s attempt to control Native resources and forcefully assimilate Natives into white society.
Sitting in the conference room of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale, Blatt and I took some time to admire its wall of tribal flags. An array of colors, patterns and cultural symbols, each flag represents the nation of an indigenous student at Yale — we are not Indians but Ojibwes, Navajos, Cherokees and more. Not Indian, but indigenous.
Describing someone by their specific tribal nation is preferred, but ‘Native American’ and ‘indigenous’ are acceptable as well.
Above all, it’s always best to ask what someone would prefer to be called so that they may make their own choice of identification.
Non-Native supporters of the label “Indian” argue that the name is too deeply entrenched in the social and political history of the United States — used by governments, textbooks, movies and sports teams — to be changed.
In response, I urge them to consider indigenous presence in the context of a society where educational and political institutions attempt to confront the harmful legacies of the past. As highly educated people who exist in spaces of extreme social and political power, we have a responsibility to seek more accurate and respectful ways of defining our communities. When I see pro-slavery rhetoric rightfully ripped from campus, and when I share my preferred pronouns in class to foster a gender-inclusive environment, I’m inspired to think of my own community. I ask: Why not us, too?
This story about tribal students was produced was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.