Day 933: The Thin Red Line Of Being An Offensive Jerk

originally published July 21, 2014

As a writer whose surrounding landscape is the unfiltered cessbucket frontier of the internet, I don’t spend much time worrying about offending my audience. Conversely, as a Canadian awash in synaptic decorum and apologetic genetics (or, apologenetics as we call them here), I feel compelled from the meaty core of my innards to fight the potentially offensive word choices that might trickle untowardly from my fingertips. This is why I don’t refer to my friends as my ‘niggaz’, why I reserve the word ‘Oriental’ to describe an avenue in the game Monopoly and not a collective of people, and why I won’t likely pen a kilograph on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue has arisen – both here in this compositional marathon as well as in “real” life – regarding the appropriate label for that group of peoples whose presence in this part of the world predates that of us whiteys. We grew up calling them Indians – a game of Cowboys ‘n Indigenous Peoples doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

It seems as though every few years I am told that the politically appropriate appellation I’ve been using is incorrect. With only 68 remaining opportunities to explore the weird wide world in this project, I think it’s time I put this issue to rest.

We all know Chris Columbus plopped his feet down on Antilles soil believing he had found the fast-track to India. His bewildered hosts were dubbed ‘Indians’ as a logical consequence, though it didn’t take long for Chris to figure out his mistake. The misnomer stuck, however. The Caribbean islands were dubbed the West Indies, and every explorer who nudged their hull against the east coast called the locals ‘Indians’. It was easier to adopt and embrace the mistake than come up with a new word, I guess.

But maybe it wasn’t a simple case of geographic blundering. Muskogee writer Bear Heart tells the story of how, after being treated so kindly by the locals, Columbus scribed in his journal that “these are people of God”, which would have appeared as “una gente in Dios”. ‘In Dios’ became ‘Indio’ and eventually ‘Indian’. In that sense, the term is more an expression of esteem than of continental ignorance. This appealing alternative has since been debunked, however; it appears the phrase shows up nowhere in Columbus’s writing. But it’s a nice thought.

While ‘Indian’ became the accepted term among North America’s new cracker infestation, a predictable stew of derogatory terminology was subsequently ladled into the lexicon. ‘Redskin’ showed up as a contrast to the terms ‘pale face’ and ‘pale skin’ that the “Indians” were using for Europeans. As any follower of Washington D.C. pro football knows, this term is a perpetual piss-off to a lot of people.

No one refers to them as ‘savages’ anymore, though anthropologists once preferred this word to describe indigenous people all over the world, including those in North America. The pidgin trade language known as Chinook Jargon uses ‘siwash’ as either an adjective or noun. This is a minor tweak of ‘sauvage’, the French word for ‘savage’. In the Pacific Northwest, this word is still in use – in other places it could get you ejected from polite society.

‘Heathen’ is also an outdated term for our native people. As a self-proclaimed heathen, I think I should find that a trifle offensive.

During the 1850’s, a notably xenophobic gaggle of Anglo-Saxons began calling themselves Native Americans, in order to differentiate their status from that of the pesky Irish and German immigrants who were swarming through Ellis Island and taking all their jobs. They formed their own party: the Know-Nothings, perhaps the last great assertion of honesty in the naming of a political party. They also came to be known as the Native American Party, and implicitly included American Indians under their self-depiction of the true inheritors of American tradition and birthright.

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the term ‘native American’ would typically refer to anyone who was born in the United States, no matter what color their skin might be. Since then it came to refer solely to indigenous people, and while it might appear to be a more politically correct label, it doesn’t really cover the galloping gamut of tribes, such as the ones whose origins lie in Canada, Mexico, South America, etc. So this one’s a no-go also.

In Canada, ‘aboriginal’ is just groovy to say in public. The word has been around for centuries, having been used by the ancient Romans when they spoke of the native peoples of central Italy. But for most of the English-speaking world, ‘aboriginal’ evokes thoughts of the aborigines in the Australian outback.

‘Indigenous Peoples’ doesn’t gather a lot of fanfare. Some believe the term is too broad, lumping indigenous North Americans with the tribal residents of everywhere else white people have planted their citizenry. Also, it wreaks of the French word “indigène”, which was used as an insult in the past.

Canadians also embraced the term ‘First Nations’ in the 1980’s, when use of the word ‘Indian’ was making white people feel a little squirmy on the inside. I’m not a fan of this one; linguistically it has no groove, and it belly-flops off the tongue with zero panache or style. Also, if First Nations people actually migrated across the Bering Strait back when it was a slab of dry land, were they really the ‘First’ nations on the planet when they settled here? What were they before they made the trip? Logistically, ‘First Nations’ doesn’t ring true to me.

You’ll nudge a lot of eyebrows skyward if you utter the term ‘Eskimo’ at a cocktail party. Why has this word taken a plunge on the stock market of good taste? Some believe it’s because in Algonkian languages it means ‘eaters of raw meat’, which doesn’t sound like much of an insult to my ears. The term ‘Inuit’ is preferred, though the Yupik people (who also brace themselves against the harshness of the tundra with igloos) are distinctly different from the Inuit. I simply call them ‘people who live where no one in their right mind should live’ and let them fight about the details.

There are other terms – First Peoples (for those who don’t see tribes as nations, I guess?), Amerinds (a portmanteau of ‘American Indian’, which no one outside Latin America uses), and Injuns (for those who don’t care who they offend). A thousand words in, and I still don’t know where I should land.

In my province, our government has a Ministry of Aboriginal Relations. We also have a ministry called Human Services, which suggests a covertly racist differentiation I’d rather not think about. America boasts the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while Canada has the Aboriginal Affairs division of the federal government (which is also officially called the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs). Jesus, maybe we still need to make up a new word.

In 1977, a delegation from the International Indian Treaty Council, a collective representing indigenous people from all over the western hemisphere, agreed to use the term ‘American Indian’. A 1995 US Census survey found 50% of indigenous Americans preferred the term ‘Indian’, 37% preferred ‘Native American’, and the rest either didn’t care or liked something else. I guess the wisest route is to simply say ‘aboriginal’ for Canadians and ‘Indian’ for Americans.

Then – just to be safe – apologize like a proud Canadian.

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