Native Americans and the Power of Naming | Elmhurst College


Native Americans and the Power of Naming

Getting to Know You: Native Americans and the Power of Naming

Native American Awareness Week
President S. Alan Ray
Elmhurst College
November 16, 2009

Osiyo nigada—welcome everyone. I want to give special thanks to the students who came up with the idea of a week devoted to awareness of Native American history and culture and have worked so hard to bring it about, especially John Sullivan and Rachel Saetre.  Thanks also to Roger Moreano, director of intercultural student affairs, for serving as an administrative coordinator of events.  Also, I am grateful to our faculty who are developing courses and formulating research aimed at bringing Native American studies to the College. Finally, I want to thank our visitors—scholars, artists, tribal members—who will be joining us this week to bring their talents and knowledge to our students. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I say thank you—wado—to everyone who has been involved in bringing to life this exciting week of cultural programming.

Awareness as Social Construction

A quick search of the Internet tells us that this is also Geography Awareness Week.  Bullying Awareness Week, Winter Weather Awareness Week, Marfan Awareness Week, and Orangutan Awareness Week, following hard on last week’s Drowsy Driving Awareness Week and International Fraud Awareness Week. That’s some diverse company. I say this not to trivialize our Native American Awareness Week, but to direct attention to the phenomenon of dedicating time and space, carving out part of our calendar, to what’s happening on the margins of our daily life.

In any “awareness week,” the center looks at the margins.  I invite you to consider who is being made aware?  Of whom are they being made aware? What are the social positions of those who give attention and those who, however briefly, are attended? Philosophers talk about “the gaze”: the subtle act of our perception, attention, and awareness that is also a powerfully constructive act. When we become aware of something, we are making it—conceiving it—in a certain way according to our pre-conceptions.

So, if Native American Awareness Week is an act of social construction, what are we constructing? What are your preconceptions about Native Americans?  Are they different from your preconceptions about Indians?  About Cherokees, Lakota, Chickasaw and hundreds of other tribes?  Do you have any preconceptions about Cherokees and any of those other tribes?  Maybe “Cherokee” conjures images of jeans or jeeps. How about Redskins? Would you ever call a Native American a Redskin? Would you ever call a football player a Redskin?  Would you get uncomfortable calling a football player a Redskin in front of a Native American?  Why?  In fact, Native American Awareness Week is a high-wire act: it risks becoming a stage on which we perform our preconceptions about the indigenous people of this continent, and some of our preconceptions may be quite offensive, or at least inaccurate. What is at stake in such social construction, and how can we make sure it does not become a moment for recapitulating stereotypes?

The Power of Naming

The people who lived on this continent before and since Europeans came had names for themselves.  Often they called themselves “principal people” (Cherokee: anisunwiya) or “first people” in their languages. They exercised power over themselves and, in their stories of origin, gave themselves pride of place vis-à-vis the rest of the universe.

Those who became colonizers of these first peoples gave them different names.  Thinking he had found a route to India, Columbus famously called them “Indians.” He distinguished some groups from others and, in the manner of his day, assigned them both names and essential qualities according to whether they were fierce or friendly to his crew. The power to name is the power to assign qualities to things and to people, so in the British and later the American imagination, Indians were either fearsome savages or gentle folks abiding in an Eden-like state of Nature. Neither status is fully human.  We (speaking here as a Cherokee) became the white man’s Indians—savages, “noble” or otherwise. Attention had been paid.

Flash forward 500 years.  Today, thanks to a federal policy of tribal self-determination, a rise in indigenous populations, and old fashioned activism, Native communities are reclaiming the power of naming. You don’t appreciate the importance of naming until you lose it, until you start being called something other than what you call yourself. But exercising the power of self-nomination presents its own challenges.  Robust debates are going on within tribes and among them over what, exactly, makes someone an “Indian” or a “Native American” or a “Cherokee” (or Lakota, or Blackfoot, et al.). Individuals may be part Cherokee (for example) and part white, or Black, or Latino, or any biological ancestry. But is that sufficient to establish an identity as an indigenous person in a given case? Could you be, say, a Cherokee and have no Indian ancestry? In short, even as Native communities increasingly agree that political sovereignty as tribal nations is paramount for their survival, what counts as evidence of belonging to a particular tribe may, in some cases, be subject to strong disagreement.

I believe that one’s identity is the result of a negotiation between you and the people around you.  You assert you are something—Cherokee—and you get looked over, to see if you fit the preconception. The ensuing conversation, if there is one, probably includes your recitation of a quick genealogy (“my grandfather/mother is Cherokee”).  Whether that’s enough to “count” depends on your interlocutor and his or her social position. More knowledge—of culture, geography, history, religious observances—may be required. Facility in one’s indigenous language is an especially potent “card” to play in the negotiation game. Naming, then, is a power that is not exercised unilaterally.  It is asserted and defended—negotiated—until what you wish to call yourself and what others will recognize you as are roughly in sync. When tribes today reclaim the power of naming, they are saying “we are not the stereotypes you think we are.”  The conversation changes to one within the tribe, “who then are we?” and debates rage.  But arguing about one’s collective identity, as a tribe, or a family, or a nation, is a sign of health, not weakness, because it implies you have power—the power of naming—and that is a precious thing.

Today We Become Aware of Native Americans for a Week

We are doing the right thing by inviting to our campus lots of people from Native backgrounds with lots of different stories, skills, and images to offer, as well as non-Natives with scholarly knowledge. Here at Elmhurst College we are making a serious effort to look at “Native” through many disciplines—history and political science, law, music, art, literature, even mathematics. This is good because the more variations you see, the harder it becomes to assign a single representation or set of images to the descendants of the people who inhabited this continent and other places around the world where colonization has taken its toll.  Indians are here, we’re real, we do not all look the same or think the same, we have very different tribal histories and very different relationships with the United States and individual states—some groups “recognized,” some not, with very different levels of tribal cultural knowledge, skills and tastes.  Paradoxically, Indian people are real but there are no “real Indians,” no icon of “Indianness,” photographer Edward S. Curtis notwithstanding. The one thing every Indian in America has in common is a shared history of cultural oppression—genocide—that started more than 500 years ago. It is not a pretty history but it is one everyone who lives on this continent should know.  It is not the kind of history I was taught in grade school—“progress ever westward”—but the history that saw conquest of the continent as America’s manifest destiny, and Indians as cultural dinosaurs on their way out anyway. But remember, people at the center of things—there are not many Native Americans who want your guilt. I have never met one. Guilt is useless, it is self-indulgent and self-focused.  Mostly, Indians I’ve met want non-Indians to help undo the damage of centuries of colonialism, and to give us space and let us thrive on our own terms, not consign us to poverty on reservations, and all that that means. Above all, I think Indians want non-Indians to stop thinking of them in terms of stereotypes. Hence the issue with sports mascots, which I obliquely referred to above, and with other representations of Indians as inhuman savages, powerless victims, superhuman spiritualists, or quaint cultural anachronisms.  We are like you.  We are not like you. And that’s OK.

What You Should Do

Native Americans. Indians. Indigenous peoples.  American Indians. First Nations. Tribal citizens. There are many names that fit in different conversations. Just as there is no one “real Indian” there is no single term that fits all occasions.  Be bold. Try out some different ways of experiencing Native self-representations and stories: film, literature, art, politics, law, history. Get into at least one discussion this week with somebody about these people you’re becoming aware of. Are you Native American?  Do you have “Indian blood” and wonder whether that makes you an Indian?  Have a conversation with someone about what that means to you, and talk about what it takes for anyone to become a member of an ethnic group. Do a little negotiating of a new identity. Above all, be alert to your own awareness—your own power to construct the concept of Native Americans—and test your assumptions against the many images you’ll see and the conversations you’ll have.  You may be surprised. Then change yourself—that’s what Elmhurst College is all about: intelligent self-formation. Then enjoy yourself.  Watch Smoke Signals. Do some circle dancing. Eat some frybread. Eat some more frybread. Think about a good future.  That’s what smart Indians do.


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