Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's in a name?

As the parent programmer for Sophie's pre-school co-op, I help out with planning and prep for all holiday parties. When the selection of our ideal class jobs was made, this was top of my list and I was over the moon when I got it. With my background in the service industry, I know a thing or two about putting on a party. For the most part, it's pretty light stuff: a few decorations and favors as well as the snacks that will be served.

Today was her class Thanksgiving celebration, so I was there to help out. All of the parents were asked to bring in an element of the Thanksgiving "dinner" that we would be prepared and served by our little ones. The parents then returned a half hour earlier than usual so the kids could sing songs and we could eat our feast together. As part of the festivities, the kids wore crafts they had made. Among these were a paper headdress and necklace, both of which were Native American inspired. When the teacher welcomed the parents to our party, she introduced her tribe of little "Indians."

When I grew up, the term Indian was in common use to refer to Native Americans. We played cowboys and Indians, we sat Indian-style and, prominently, Thanksgiving was about the pilgrims and the Indians. It hails back to Columbus' expedition more than 500 years ago in search of a westbound route to India and while its fallacy was quickly established, the name stuck.

At some time in the last 25-30 years, there has been a shift towards the politically correct, and more accurate, "Native American." And while I don't consider Indian to be derogatory, its use has certainly fallen out of favor, particularly in schools. Which is why I was a tad surprised when the teacher used that term. This is a non-public school, so we aren't bound by the same rules and practices as our public counterparts, but there is still an expectation that certain conventions will be followed.

Personally, I am not offended by the term Indian. In fact, there are many situations where it feels down right weird to use the PC version. Cowboys and Native Americans? Just doesn't have the same ring for me. I also know that many Native Americans continue to call themselves Indians.

But today I got to thinking. Because there is a little girl in Sophie's class who is actually Indian, as in, born in India, bona-fide Indian, Indian. And I wondered what she thought of the use of the term Indian to refer to Native Americans. Because even at three going on four, she must understand the difference. Does it confuse her?

What do you think? Are we over-sensitive to these things? Not sensitive enough?