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?


  1. I think it's an interesting question. The term "Native American" is probably the only one of those pc-imposed terms that I don't take offense to, though having Native American ancestors, I am also not offended by the term Indian. I refuse to use terms like African-American, etc because really, we're all Americans. I personally do not go around saying I am Hungarian-American. I think the term Native American doesn't go out of its way to separate people like other hyphenated names. I'd like to hear what an "Indian" Indian has to say.

  2. Hmmmm.... I'd also be wondering what the little girl (and her parents) think of using the word "Indian" to describe Native Americans.

    I'm like you, I don't see "Indian" as being derogatory. But I guess I do use "Native American" more often than "Indian".

  3. I've noticed the word "Indian" used in my boys' various Thanksgiving worksheets and projects. I was surprised as well. I say Native American, but I think I'm okay with "Indian" so long as the portrayal of the "Indians" is a positive one.

  4. Having some Indian in my background, I do not find the term offensive. What I do find offensive is the movement to shove political correctness down everyone's throat. I believe this country has gone too far. It seems that the people in this country are way to quick to take offense at anything and everything. I don't like the term African American, or Hungarian American or anything - American. When you moved to this country you became an AMERICAN.......period.

  5. I'm totally late commenting, but oh well!

    My husband is Native American. Like, 25% so, a direct descendant of Pocahontas, blah, blah, blah. Neither he nor any members of his family are in any way offended by the term "Indian," but they do usually say Native American simply for clarification reasons.

    As for confusion by Indians, my daughter's best friend is Indian and has no problem explaining things when it comes up. Doesn't bother her one bit!

  6. I think the term American Indian has also been adopted by some, and was the term that the storyteller that came to N.'s preschool used. I also think a lot of Native Americans identify strongly with their particular tribe, though that gets complicated when you're trying to teach more general concepts to kids. (though maybe the whole idea is not to generalize??)

  7. I don't find it offensive, but I do think that the term is silly. They're not from India, so they're not Indian. And if we're clarifying ethnicity, I find it confusing that I am labeled by the "color" of my skin but other groups are labeled by their supposed "region of origin." If your family has lived in America for more than 1 generation, I consider you to have American heritage, not African American heritage. I guess you would need a tab on the checklist that said "Italian/Swedish/German family from 100-200 years ago" for my tab. That just gets confusing.

  8. I'm no advocate of being easily offended. I think that it's good to have a thick skin...

    At the same time, I think that referring to the people who suffered at the hands of the Europeans as something they're not is a little disrespectful. Especially now that the present day Americans are battling against illegal immigrants.


Give me some sugar, baby!