When I was young, like most people here, I was completely confused by certain words, which I’d only encountered in reading and didn’t quite know how to pronounce. I understand my pronunciation of Whale in Portuguese kept the family in stitches for years, and the funny thing is I no longer remember which pronunciation is the funny one and which the correct one.
More importantly, sometimes I assigned COMPLETELY wrong meanings to words. I sometimes find that I’ve done that in English too, but more rarely.
You see, sure we owned a dictionary, but when I was eight and devouring all the books I or my friends could get our hands on, stopping to look in the dictionary was a waste of time. (I once had an entire “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationship for a whole two years because his parents were well to do and bought him whatever books he asked for. As opposed to my family, where I could read whatever I could dig up (why the potato cellar, mom? Weird place to hide dad’s old books. I don’t care if you thought they weren’t aesthetically pleasing) and got new books (often wildly inappropriate ones, and really, people, there is other science fiction than Verne, okay?) from relatives for my birthday (but not Christmas. That was clothing and money.) Yep, I know what that makes me. Don’t judge me, we were in fourth grade and the most onerous thing required of me as a girlfriend was to hold hands.)
So I inferred words from surrounding words, tone, story, whatever.
Which is why I came to think that “native” and “aboriginal” were words for “Savage” and “barbaric”. This probably came from the fact that at the time I was going through a Tarzan and other books of similar vintage phase. It wasn’t until I was reading an anthropological book and found aboriginal used in a context that couldn’t mean “savage” or barbaric that I realized I must have got hold of the wrong end of the stick and went to the dictionary, where I found that aboriginal meant originating in that place, and not “savage” or “barbaric.” Native had the same meaning.
So, what is this all about? Well, recently I went through great anguish of mind while writing a book set in the 19th century and involving Amerindians. Should I use Indians? Or Natives? Both were accurate usage for the time, but surely, periodically, they’d default to “Indian” since that was the common usage.
Of course these days “Indian” is considered pejorative because it’s the name given by Europeans who mistook the inhabitants of the Americas for inhabitants of quite another region of the world.
I get that. I don’t get replacing it with “Native Americans.” Yes, I know that the legends of a lot of tribes say that they were created here, but holy heck, are we going to go on that testimony now? Then we should refer to Christians as Edenintes, because that’s where they believe they were created, right? No? Then what makes a religion true and the other false, from the outside? Oh, yeah, because one is exotic and stuff.
In fact, from a scientific point of view we have more than enough proof that the people’s Europeans found in the Americas didn’t evolve there, weren’t created there, and weren’t the first ones there. I.e. they displaced other people.
So, does that make them “Indians?” Well, no. That is an obvious misnomer. That said, it was still the word used through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also still the word used in Portugal. (My nickname from dad was “Indian” meaning an Amerindian (I think that is still the anthropological word.) Other fathers called their daughters “princess”, my dad called me “Indian.” Is it any wonder I love the man?)
So “native American” is a misnomer too. BUT the more important thing is lots of peoples are misnamed in a lot of languages. Alemao is the Portuguese word for German. As I understand it, the Alemani were only one of the German tribes. And then there’s Pennsylvania Dutch. They aren’t Dutch, of course. It’s a mispronunciation of Deutsch and not understanding they meant “German.”
Of course Amerindian is wrong too, just an attempt to make it more specific than “Indian.”
And then of course there is the insanity of naming a tribal people spread over a continent the same things. People are Cheyenne or Cherokee, Dakota or Aztec and they’re as different among them as Portuguese, German or French.
So, yeah, the name is wrong. And “native American” is wrong, and IMNSHO we should just call people by their tribes or “people” name. That’s me, though. And in an historical context, I still chose to use “Indian” because it’s what the characters would use.
However, in a more sane perspective, why replace Indian with the politically correct “Native American” which is not only still as inaccurate, but also insulting in that it forces several tribes that have nothing to do with each other under the same umbrella.
This is the same insanity of most “political correct” naming. It is still incorrect, and over time it acquires the same meaning as the word it replaces. There’s no point at all replacing a negative word with a positive word because over time it acquires the same meaning. We clever monkeys are really good at inferring meaning from use and ignoring the actual meaning of the words, just as I inferred “savage” and “barbaric” from aboriginal and native, because I was reading books of people who believed the two were equivalent.
How long did it take for “Special” to mean “short bus special” (and let me tell you aggregating “gifted” into “special” doesn’t help, nor does substituting “Special” with “exceptional.” I’m theoretically the mother of a “twice exceptional” child, though I suspect he’s only “once exceptional” now, as he outgrew most of the sensory issues, while retaining the intelligence. Calling him that back in middle school didn’t prevent the school from fearing him, distrusting him, and attributing to stubbornness issues that came from the sensory problems.)
Of course, it is easier to change “Indian” into “Native American” and congratulate yourself on your own tolerance and open mindedness than to ascertain what tribe you’re speaking about and use that name. It is easier to designate people “special” or “exceptional” than to account for their abilities or disabilities and accommodating those, while treating them as people.
It is easier to submerge the individual in a group and then pretend everyone in that group are widgets, no matter how wrong this is.
And it is wrong. And what was a bad, pejorative meaning will attach to the new word. And nothing will be solved.
But hey, those who think they are superior and more understanding than the rest of us and who believe changing the word changes the thing can declare victory and move on.
Even if nothing changed.