Is the term “Indian” Offensive? The Joy of Ethnonyms

I would like to apologize to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for referring to its members as “colored people”. – Steve Martin, Pure Drivel, 1999

A man did a bad thing the other day. He called some people “Indians”. Upon learning of this, the editorial board of a local newspaper clutched its pearls and fell into a profound swoon. After being revived, they staggered to their desks and fired off an opinion piece denouncing the fellow and calling for him to be punished. Though this rogue (himself of Cree and Anishinabe descent) had already been castigated by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and his fellow trustees on the Mountain View School Board in Dauphin, Manitoba, and though an NDP cabinet minister had called for a governance review, the hyperventilating editorialists called for “serious consequences”.

The term “Indian”, said the journalists, was “hurtful” and “racist”. But was it? Outdated, perhaps, the result of a silly 430-year-old misapprehension – the fruit of Christopher Columbus’s mistaken belief that he had reached Asia by sailing westward in 1492 – but no sillier than calling white people Caucasians as if they had all emerged from the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas.

So, when did “Indian” become a term of abuse?

Certainly not in 1970, when activists such as Harold Cardinal and George Manuel founded the National Indian Brotherhood to oppose the Chretien-Trudeau plan to abolish the Indian Act.

Not in 1978, when NIB Chief Noel Starblanket launched an All-Chiefs Conference to be “the one and only voice of Indian people in Canada” – an organization that morphed into today’s Assembly of First Nations.

Definitely not in 2000, when Sioux firebrand Russell Means (a leader of the American Indian Movement) proclaimed “I abhor the term Native American … the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity. At an international conference of Indians from the Americas held in Geneva, Switzerland at the United Nations in 1977 we unanimously decided we would go under the term American Indian. 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. Finally, I will not allow a government, any government, to define who I am. Besides anyone born in the Western hemisphere is a Native American.”

So what do we make of the retreat from the term Indian and the adoption of a series of ever-more sanitized ethnonyms for the descendants of those Siberian tribes that migrated to this continent? Just as “Negro” or Colored Person” were once respectable descriptions of Americans with African ancestry, “Indian” is now not to be breathed by anyone not wishing to be pilloried by right-thinking folk. Those who once used BIPOC to refer to Black Indigenous People of Color found themselves old-fashioned and objects of shame for not employing the more-inclusive BIMPOC – People of Black Indigenous Mixed-Race People of Color. (You can’t make this up.)

Over time, “Indian” was replaced by the risible “Canada’s First Nations” which gave way to “native” which was elbowed aside by “indigenous”. The fact is that one term is no more accurate or non-racist than another; it is all part of a game played by activists to wrong-foot any critics and to demonstrate that they are the in-group at the top of the moral pyramid. Before too long another word – perhaps autochthonous (look it up) – will emerge from the office of some diversity coordinator and everyone will feel uncomfortable if they hear an earlier circumlocution.

“Autochthonous” – get used to it or prepare to be denounced.


Gerry Bowler, historian, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

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