Native Americans - What did they call themselves?

Back when North America was dicovered, explorers called the natives “Indians” becasue they thought they had found a part of India. Today, to be politically correct we call them “Native Americans.”

But what did these people call themselves before the white man came? I know that they had tribe names, but was there a term to refer to all of the people, much as some might say “Englishmen” or “Frenchman?” What did they call the land they lived on? It certainly wasn’t America, so what was it?

I suspect that most folks ’ names for themselves mean “us” or “real people” or “original People” or “human beings” (as Berger used it in Little Big Man. As opposed to “them”, “the heathen”, “foreigners”. See Cecil’s column on why the Germans call themselves what they call themselves.

I think they went strictly by their tribal names. Chippewa, Cherokee, etc. Just a guess.

It varries greatly, since “Native Americans” refers to a large and disparate group of peoples, with different languages, cultures, and worldviews. The name for themselves was very often something corresponding to “the people”, like with the Dineh. Their name for others was often something corresponding with “enemy.” Often the name that we think of when thinking of an Indian tribe is another tribes’ name for them (often “enemy”), which was the first we learned. “Navajo”, the common name for the Dineh, comes from a Spanish version of a Tewa word, while “Mowhawk” is a Narraganset name meaning “flesh eaters”, “Apache” is said to be a Spanish corruption of a Zuni word meaning “enemy,” “Sioux” is a French corruption of a Anishinabe word also meaning “enemy.”

Makes sense…“What do you call those people over there?”

“Oh, them? We call them ‘enemy’!”

Pravnik has it right. The same goes with the land. What do you call the big mountain over there? We call it “big mountain” [in our language]. What do you call all this land? We call it “the land” [in our language].

The column in question on why people call themselves what they do.

To this day, if you ask an American Indian, “what are you?” he or she will, in my experience, usually identify with his or her tribe.

Because of the close similarity of many Algonquian dialects and the vagaries of 17th Century phonetic spelling in English, there has been a lot of confusion about tribal names. One of the more shining examples of that confusion was by James Fennimore Cooper, whose Last of the Mohicans manages to thoroughly confuse the Mahican tribe of the Hudson River area with the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut.

I think that both names are a variant of the word “Muhhekunneuw,” which means “people of the great river.” This would make sense since the Mahicans were along the Hudson and the Mohegans were located along the Thames.

On a vaguely related note, Herman Melville saw fit to name Captain Ahab’s ship Pequod, which “you will no doubt remember,” says Melville, “was the name of a celebrated Indian tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Even though Melville got the tribe’s location wrong (they’re in Connecticut, not Massachusetts) and the tribe’s status (not only do they exist, they’re now the wealthiest tribe in America), Melville may have known that “Pequot” means “the destroyers.”

My old fencing master called himself a “Lakotah”.

I think the concept of a “continental” identity that transcended tribe boundaries was introduced by the Europeans, although the Haudenosaunee* were beginning to develop a confederation identity–but even that identity denied equal status to anyone not of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onandoga, or Seneca (even the Tuscarora did not have voting rights).
*aka “Iroquois”, which actually means “rattlesnakes” or “bad snakes”–they were a very expansionistic empire in their day.

What Dogface says agrees with what a Cherokee man (who claimed to have studied the issue) told me some years ago: that tribes typically has an “us and them” worldview and there was little or no tendency toward a collective term for all native peoples.

I’ve also been told that the term “Indian” is now in common use among Indians, and that they find “Native American” to be affected and effete. (Anyone know if this is so?)

My SIL is Hopi. If you ask her what she is, she’ll tell you she’s Hopi. If you call her an Indian, she’s not offended, nor is she offended if you call her Native American. Just don’t call her Navajo.

As for the Indian term, I believe it came into use when more Indians form India immigrated to the US and it became a confusing term. As least that why I call them Native Americans.

Here Native Americans refer to themselves as Indians. It is
nothing new. I am not aware of any Indian here being insulted
by being called a Native American but they don’t seem to use
the term much themselves. On occasion a tribe name will be
used if there is a need to differentiate between tribes, as in
a Sioux speaking about the Cheyenne.

Collectively, the Indians I’ve known refer to themselves as “Indians”. They all consider “native American” to be part and parcel with “liberal whites who will wring their hands all day and not really do a damned thing to help”.

Now that you’ve had a chance to think about it, isn’t it pretty obvious, welby? Indians called themselves “people.” There would be no need for a word that differenciated them from people from other continents, because they didn’t know that there were people on other continents.

Wow Dogface, it’s cool how you got to speak for all Indians, and get a gratuitous slam in on liberals too!

The term “native American” is increasingly being used to describe all aboriginal peoples within the United States. That includes Native Alaskans, and American Indians, and sometimes Native Hawaiians.

In very general terms, Indians come from the lower 48 states. I’m sure there are exceptions.

I’ve spoken with more than a few paranoid Indian affairs lawyers who don’t like to use “Native American” because they fear the term may one day be used to undermine the trust responsibility that the United States has toward American Indians. Believe me when I say it’s a good thing to be paranoid in that line of work.

Things are steadily changing, but a few years ago you could make a good guess as to whether or not a piece of Congressional legislation was good for American Indians just by reading the title. If it said “Indian” in the title, it was usually good. If it said “Native American,” it was often crafted by some weasel who was trying to screw them over. Since the term now often encompasses the Indians of the lower 48 and Native Alaskans, it’s a less certain indicator.

Please re-read what I actually wrote. I stated that the attitude was prevalent among those whom I had personally known. Now, can you specifically quote where I made a universal statement in that message? Do tell.