What Is In A Name?


January 7, 2014

Blue Eagle asked me to consider “What’s in a Name.”  It wasn’t so much a specific invitation as it was a question to anyone following the Facebook page Landscape Mending: Restoring Harmony, Terminating the Doctrine of Discovery.  The crux of Blue Eagle’s question is, what language or terms do we or should we use when talking about folk whose ancient heritage is of the American landscape: Native American? American Indian? First People? Indigenous? NDN?  He jump starts the conversation by giving a link to Christina Berry’s article, What’s in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness.

Obviously, I enter the question as a non-American Indian white guy.  And doesn’t that sentence get at what Blue Eagle is questioning?  Is non-American Indian a term I should use?  Well, let me wonder with you about this for a bit.

I make mistakes.  My friends will be the first to tell you that!  One I made when I came to the Yakama reservation was to use the term Native American with a friend.  She quickly let me know, to my benefit, that she was not Native American but Indian.  Turned out many in my community are Indian.  Yet, I have found that not the case throughout the Americas.  Which leads me to understand the issue of naming is much more complicated than folk would like to think.

Dominate culture prefers simple language where it concerns American Indians.  Since, like it or not, most all of us are informed by dominate culture, we too have become comfortable with the simplification of language.  Simple means we don’t argue the edges, we don’t challenge the norm, and most of all, we don’t have to think.  Simple means we no longer converse with one another but rather accept the right handed to us by dominate culture.  It may get a bit messier if we ignore dominate cultures terminology concerning American Indians, and our conversation might become a bit more energetic, but at least we look and sound like humans in the effort.

To consider “What’s in a Name,” I suggest we think about this from the perspective of landscape.  To do that, we need to understand the term landscape.  We often think of landscape from a geographical or geological context.  However, I propose we let the thinking of Leslie Silko influence our understanding of landscape.  Silko asks us to become intimately aware of landscape.  This is to say the landscape is familial.  The landscape is fully aware of us and in relationship with the core of our being.  Yet, it desires something more—a relationship where humanity recognizes the intimate bond.  To grasp landscape as more than dirt, to know the relative, one must open their soul an ancient acquaintance.  My home landscape is ridges who walk from the west toward the rising sun.  Their ancient being has mingled and created the valley they embrace.  Landscape, though, is much more than ridges and valley.  It is the soil of rising ridges and leveling valley; it is the creeks and rivers that divide and run the valley’s length; it is the plants who hold soil close; it is the animals who eat those plants and the people who eat those animals; it is the wind that moves across the face of the people, animals, plants, and land; and it is the story of all embedded in the soil.  To know such landscape is to know name.

Name given by family is name that most matters.  That name, considered and pondered by parents—the landscape of our creation, is a deeply intimate expression by which we are known.  The depth of spirit in naming resonates for a lifetime and the vibrancy of name is valued so profoundly that few folk ever change their name when they come of age.

A step beyond the familial landscape is that of neighbor—the landscape of community.  Larger, but micro, families come together to claim identity in a place which speaks to them.  Over time some leave and others arrive, but for the most part, people stay together in place, because it is their place—their home.  And place often names community.  The Pipa Aha Macav (Mojave), a neighboring people of the landscape of my youth, were known for their easy movement across desert, farming, and trade networks.  Their given name though, does not come from what they do, but from the landscape of their creation, the Colorado River.  Thus they are the Mojave (Pipa Aha Macav)—The People By The River.

Local landscape begs to call people by their given name.  This given name is the familial name given to them by the soil, water, animals, wind, and people.  My friend is Blue Eagle who is a child of the ancient Chickasaw.  When one hears the name Blue Eagle, they should also hear the voice of landscape telling a story of people who have walked the land since time immemorial.  Yet, Blue Eagles question takes us beyond the local name of family and community.

Grasping local landscape is like looking through a microscope with a 40x lens.  You focus on a small unique area of something much larger.  When you back-off to a 10x lens, the local landscape remains, but the richness changes for now you see many local landscapes.  These local landscapes make up a landscape in which they are community.  There is a layered progression of, say, town to county to state, each has similar qualities, but they are unique and different from one another.  Consider the California landscape for example.  The Mojave and many other eastern California tribes live and have identity in a landscape very different from those who live along the Pacific coast.  In turn, those people of the southern California landscape experience an existence quite different from those peoples of northern California.  Now pull out to a 2x lens and the 150 or so tribes of the California landscape are but a few of the many tribes of the North American landscape.  This macro-landscape gets to a second aspect of Blue Eagles question, how does one, in a post-modern writing or speaking context: academy, social, political, church/pulpit, talking to the neighbor over the fence, refer to the peoples (bands and tribes), as a whole, whose ancient heritage is the North American landscape?

Before answering, we need to acknowledge a hard line does not exist between micro and macro landscapes.  Sometimes reservation landscapes can look more macro than micro.  For instance, unlike reservations that are home to one ancient people, the Yakama reservation is home to 14 ancient tribes and bands.  This 1855 Treaty grouping was done by the U.S. government for one, convenience sake—much easier to have one reservation than fourteen—and two, provide a means of removing individual tribal/band identity.  The second reason implies that if people stop recognizing their individual 14 tribal/band identities and begin knowing themselves collectively as one tribe, then, in time, descendents would also walk away from the singular tribal identity and identify only as a member/citizen of the United States—thus ending tribal identity, national identity, and the need for a reservation (One reason Blue Eagles question matters.).  Therefore, in those reservation landscapes of many people’s there is a similar question to that of the macro-landscape of how to identify the whole while keeping individual tribal/band identity.

So what is in a name?  What is it going to be when writing or speaking about the ancient people of a continent, Native American? American Indian? First People? Indigenous? NDN?  Any naming, from my perspective, should arise from the landscape.  That calls for a deep and intentional listening.  This is listening that few are suited for in a post-modern context.  Western education—the base of most education in the world and the dominate education in the American landscape, calls one to critical thinking and having an opinion.  Listening?  To the land?  Not so much.  Because landscape listening is lost in the American landscape, coming up with one term to define the people of thousands of ancient tribes is difficult.  Each of the names Blue Eagle gave us to think about and many more are well supported and argued against.  While each  of those macro names has value, none arise out of the soil as do the local names of Yakama, Mojave, Navaho/Diné, Crow, Alabama, Penobscot, Oneida, Mandan.

Okay, so what name is it to be when speaking and writing about pan-American people?  The best we can do, until a time of listening takes place, is to ask the people whom we stand beside.  When speaking, we must ask people, in the context they find themselves, their preferable name.  Writing is also contextual, to a point.  When writing to a specific context, the macro name should reflect the thinking of that context.  When writing is broader and to many people in many contexts, then the term should be one the writer has given enough thought that s/he can enter into a conversation as to why they use the term they do.

So, what do I use?  As you’ve read in this writing, I prefer American Indian.  There is nothing wrong with Native American, First People, Indigenous, First Nations, or Aboriginal.  I use each when speaking in different landscapes.  However, I mostly use American Indian because American refers to the landscape of the Americas.  I know it is somewhat problematic because most people use the term American to refer to their nationalistic U.S. identity rather than to the landscape of their being, but to leave it behind because of wrong use dishonors the landscape and her people (American Indians and non-American Indians).  I like it when either Native or Indian is coupled with American.  I prefer Indian though, because Indian is the term used by my neighbors in my landscape.  American Indian, for me, is a term that is gracious, familial, honorable and harmonic.

As I said in the beginning.  I am a non-American Indian white guy.  More often than not, I find it best and most kind to follow the lead of my American Indian sisters and brothers on this issue.  However, I look forward to a time of listening when the voice of the landscape, the land of our creation and the place of our being, is heard again and each of us hear our family name spoken anew.

© David B. Bell 2013


    1. Thanks Keith. I continue to have questions running around in my head concerning the lumping of tribal people and the loss of identity that can come of it…perhaps more thinking and writing on this in the future. Great to have your input! (Also, I am at Winter Talk for NWATD–have a great time there!)


  1. Although, I am 1/4 Seminole, I believe ignoring the original mistake of Columbus is a mistake (“…an incorrect assumption” as stated by Berry) by continuing to use the terminology, Indian, is a mistake on top of a mistake. I am also of African descent and I know many who are also of African descent who do not want to acknowledge that fact and insist on calling themselves Black, which is similar to the plight of the North American indigenous people who continue to call themselves Indian. Habit should not be a reason for sticking with a term that lacks critical analysis. Just because someone outside my cultural circle continues to call me Indian, doesn’t mean I should accept it. It matters more what the conscious minded in-group considers themselves. I do agree with being specific when one can, but when discussing indigenous people as a whole, the word indigenous is more accurate, it is respectful and does not erase all the atrocities that western civilization has created.


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