Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Nomenclature Problem: Indians

Some terms for different classifications of human beings are ambiguous, that's all there is to it.  Joseph Stalin is one famous Georgian, Jimmy Carter is another.  And in an odd coincidence, "Iberia" is as ambiguous as "Georgia," because the ancient Georgians in the Caucasus were once called "Iberians," just like Spaniards and Portuguese, although they're no more related than Carter and Stalin were.  Or Hiawatha and Gandhi. And on top of that, "Caucasian" refers to one of the human races and to inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountain region.  Like one kind of Georgian, and one kind of Iberian.  And, as a strange aside, the country "Georgia" isn't called that in the Georgian language, but საქართველო (Sakartvelo) instead.  And then you have the Pennsylvania Dutch, who aren't Dutch, but German.

But the one big ethnic terminology ambiguity is "Indian," which refers both to the nation and people of India, and to the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of America, not including Eskimoes.  Context will get you past most "Georgia" problems, but not so with "Indian."  As in the illustration, a popular way to disambiguate is to say either "feather Indian" or "dot Indian," which is cute and will serve for colloquial usage, but it's a tad undignified.  I advocate using the anthropological term "Amerindian" for the first, and "Hindostani," a direct borrowing from Hindi/Urdu, for the second.  And, of course, you can always say "American Indian" and "Asian Indian," which have the slight disadvantage of not being single words, but maybe that's just me.  There's an additional problem that this doesn't solve, and that's the fact that there's an ethnic/racial/linguistic relationship among the nations of India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan (and maybe even Burma, I'm not sure), so I'm inclined to want a term that covers all of them, too. I encounter people all the time, and I'm sure they're one of those, but I can't tell which at all, so I think of them as "subcontinent" people.  Sometimes I hear "South Asian," which sort of works, I guess.

Well, Bad Eagle holds out for keeping and using the term "American Indian," and makes a good case for it.  He advocates calling the other group "Hindus," which of course introduces another ambiguity. He's right that "Hindu" used to mean the people of that area which now includes all the countries mentioned above, but now it means adherents to a particular religion.  So I'll compromise with him, and go with "American Indian" and "Hindostani."  Anybody got any better ideas or suggestions?  Do comment if you do.  Bad Eagle says:

Coulter Says “Hindu,” not Indian

by David Yeagley · February 26, 2013

We’re grateful for small miracles.

Ann Coulter‘s latest article, “HISPANICKED GOP ELITE: THEY’LL RESPECT US IN THE MORNING,” contains a truly classic opening line: “Don’t anyone tell Marco Rubio, John McCain or Jeff Flake that nearly 80 percent of Hindus voted for Obama, or who knows what they’ll come up with.”

The article is about panic Hispanics are causing the retarded Republican establishment, but, the use of the word “Hindu” rather than “Indian” is, in our opinion at, one of the most important social victories for the American Indian in the last decade. Not that we consider ourselves in any way a factor of influence in Ms. Coulter’s choice of words, but, we nevertheless rejoice in the obvious triumph of courtesy rendered our fine red race by none other than the Great White Woman (who, of course, is a Cherokee Princess, or some such prestigious personage of essential ethnicity). has long fought for the historical name “American Indian” as the only legally valid nomenclature in English designating the indigenous people of America. I have published several articles validating this fact. I personally guard the very word “Indian.” Why? Let me remind the world presently, again: It is the American Indian who is named in the Declaration of Independence; it is the American Indian who is named in the Constitution of the United States. There is no other “Indian,” anywhere, that is entitled to that magnificent distinction.
(He's inspiring, isn't he?  Read the rest of his essay HERE.)


  1. I use Feather or Dot among friends. Since I lived in Albuquerque for a while, everyone knew what you meant when you said Indian, although people often referred to them as Native Americans, which is inaccurate since anyone born here is a native American.

  2. I solve the problem by calling people by tribal name (Apache, Navajo,Tigua, and so on) as much as possible, Important habit as we do not lump Europeans together (until recently) but distinguish between French, Germans, Basque, Castillanos and so on.This is necessary to be able to form the right cultural expectations.

  3. I just posted by Bad Eagle, and was a little harsher, given his own tone, which I do like as well.

    In this more civil discourse, I say this: The fatal flaw in his argument is that American Indians are called so only because Columbus thought he landed in the East Indies, in Asia, and he probably thought it was part of India itself.

    I think it best that the tribal names are used mostly. When a general term is needed, I like the Canadian term, First Nations peoples, but it is a mouthful. American Indian is fine. But not "Indian". As far as South Asian is concerned, that is the best compromise when you are speaking about the subcontinent. But when you are speaking of people who are from India, then Indian by itself is what IS used and SHOULD be used. The term American Indian is derived from a mistake and so logically cannot make a claim to the term Indian, which was MEANT for people from India. (It is strange that this even has to be debated. Don't you see the word "India" in the word "Indian"?)

    I think it is more respectful to call First Nations peoples by the names they called themselves, in any case: Cree, Navajo, Inuit, Comanche, etc. They are cool names as well. It is kind of silly to insist on furthering the mistake. I guess it can be a culture shock if you grew up thinking you were Indian all this time, to suddenly realize that you were not. But that is a problem that has to be overcome, unfortunately.

    1. It's fine to use tribal names, but when talking about them as a group, Amerindian is unambiguous. This is especially handy when you're talking about race as opposed to culture. Hindostani is the Hindi word, and it, too, is unambiguous. Lots of names are misunderstandings or mistakes, but they've stuck. I strive for clarity and respect both. BTW, Bad Eagle just died.

    2. I'm sorry to hear about Bad Eagle's death. I liked his spirit, even when I disagreed with him.

      I fully accept your points about avoiding ambiguities, and your terminological preferences certainly have clarity. (I don't like the term, Hindustani, though, because it is so Mughal, and Muslim rule was disastrous in India.)

      However, while the rest of the world continues to use the word "Indian", the claim of the South Asians is clearly precedent and superior to Native Americans. Although I do admit that in the Americas, the Amerindians do have a longstanding, legitimate "Indian" identity that cannot be dismissed or ignored. A dilemma to be sure. Bad Eagle brought up the argument, so I just responded because I don't think he took some important things into account.