Educate Yourself

Learn to Respectfully Address The Indigenous People of North America

For many of us, the Fourth of July brings back childhood memories of sparklers, fireworks, barbecue, and staying up past your bedtime at the neighborhood block parties. Although the declaration was signed on July 2nd, the colonial public was alerted of their independence from Britain via the press of the fourth. Being free from unfair tariffs, taxes, and an oppressive British military that was notorious for occupying the homes of the colonial Americans seems like a wonderful thing to celebrate. However, this national holiday doesn’t bring back fond memories for everyone that this land belongs to.

The indigenous people of North America, referred to respectfully as the First Nations or Indigenous people, have faced centuries of oppression at the hands of European colonization. And sadly, this oppression has not come anywhere close to stopping. Most recently, the violent backlash against anti-pipeline protesters on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe reservation caused a national uproar at the painful footage of the indigenous residents being hosed with water cannons in freezing temperatures, despite the peaceful nature of their protest. Although we as Americans have the right to assemble and to peacefully protest, it seems as if those rights have not been extended to the people of the First Nations.

This brings up the topic of how we linguistically refer to Indigenous people in our country, and why certain very common terms are actually offensive. In schools, indigenous people are referred to as “Native Americans” or “Native Indians”. While both of these terms don’t appear to be a slur, they are both incorrect and culturally insensitive. Indigenous people were dubbed “Indians” by European colonizers, although it is hard to prove whether or not Christopher Columbus was the one who coined the term. Although, when it comes to the usage of the term, it is not uncommon for indigenous people to refer to themselves and their tribe members as “Indians” but coinciding with certain other racial terms, it should be avoided by non-tribe members unless they are specifically asked to refer to them as such by a tribe member. Keep in mind, different First Nation tribes have different preferences so it is important to be cognizant of preferred terms.

Moving away from the formerly common term, Indian, Native American is the term that I was always taught it school growing up. Despite it’s elevated political correctness, the term itself isn’t exactly accurate. Referring to indigenous people as “Native Americans” implies that they were the first Americans, when in fact, their Nations’ histories are entirely separate from that of the United States. These weren’t small tribes here and there. The First Nations were a vast infrastructure of tribes that was thriving only until it was disturbed by the European colonizers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By referring to Indigenous tribes as the First Nations, you are verbally acknowledging that these people existed and still continue the traditions of a time before the United States essentially began the occupation of their land.

However, if you still find yourself confused on how to refer to different tribes, I wanted to reference a quote from Joseph M. Marshall III, an Indigenous author who wrote the book The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn. He was given a list of different labels and ultimately settled on a conclusion that would be appropriate and all encompassing of what would be acceptable to all First Nation tribes.

“We prefer to be identified by our specific tribes or nations, of which there are nearly five hundred ethnically identifiable in the United States.”

The most important thing you can do is to advocate for the preferences and rights of Indigenous people, even though the United States government has a nasty habit of overlooking them. While it is wrong and sick that the Indigenous people who inhabited this continent had to endure everything from Europeans seizing their land to a full blown genocide that we know as the Trail of Tears, advocating for their rightful place in our government and infrastructure is only the beginning of repairing what has been done.

Until Next Post,

Bekah

image source: waterkeeper.org

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