Re: Natives [LONG]

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Mon, 19 Feb 1996 13:45:43 -0330

The principle that outsiders, and social scientists in particular, ought to
respect what any group of people wants to be called ('Dene' and not
'Indian') is fine. Particularly so for groups who in the past were known by
labels imposed on them by colonizers e.g. American and Canadian 'Indians'.
But the substitution of indigenous terms like 'Dene', which refer to
regionally delimited cultural and linguistic groupings of North American
aboriginal people, does not entirely deal with the problem. (There is also
the fact that many of the labels used for regional or 'tribal' groups were
also imposed, so that at the insistence of local people many of these labels
are being substituted by indigenous terms, but that is a whole other issue.)
In some contexts there is a need by North American aboriginal people
themselves to be able to identify collectively. Thus the term 'Indian', even
though it is the constant butt of jokes, usually told by people of the group
in question, about Columbus' mistake, is nevertheless still in general use,
including by a large number of the people so-labelled.

'First Nations' works as an alternative, and manages to include the Inuit,
but only in some contexts. For instance I have never heard anyone identify
themselves as a 'First National' (sounds like a bank). I do not know what
the origin of the term was, except that I was first aware of it when the
Canadian "National Indian Brotherhood" changed its name to "The Assembly of
First Nations". That, in turn, was probably a political counter to the
British and French being referred to as Canada's "two founding nations",
leaving the aboriginal people, although accepted by the first European
explorers as 'nations', as chopped liver. In Quebec the term 'Amerindian'
has some currency, and also includes both Indians and Inuit, but it seems to
me it is used more by social scientists than by the people so-labelled. Even
though my Yukon aboriginal friend called herself "Native", another label
that bridges Indian and Inuit, the term has not really caught on, except as
an outsider's label, partly for the reason I gave in my previous post.

In part this continued need for a cover term for North Americal aboriginal
people in general, and even the construction of an ethnic identity
associated with this label, is the result of something that was partly
imposed on them from outside, that is, by their being made subject to
certain laws and administrative practices, and by their being treated by
their neighbors as belonging to a single ethnic grouping, regardless of
their actual diverse tribal organizations, and the cultural and linguistic
differences among them. Also Pan-Indianism reflects the, often urban, living
together in neighborhoods of 'Indians' of diverse tribal backgrounds.

But why are Inuit not included in the cover term 'Indian'? I'm not sure
whether this point has come up in the recent thread discussing 'ethnicity',
but there is one viewpoint which says that ethnicity is arrived at through a
dialectic process, that is, of ethnic identity claims being floated by
certain social groups, some of which are accepted, but others of which are
rejected, by the surrounding larger society. If one accepts this idea that
the wider society contributes something to the shaping of its internal
ethnic groups (c.f. the 'Invented Indian'), then my suspicion is that there
may be a basically European racialist explanation for why the ethnic
category "Indian" has survived, despite its obvious drawbacks, and is
generally used by the larger North American society in preference to the
'tribal' identities like Dene. Racialism would also account for why Eskimo
(or now Inuit) are not generally categorized as being simply one regional
cultural and linguistic sub-grouping of Indians (like Dene), but as being an
entirely separate group. That is, although there are some differences in
physical appearence between "Indians" of different North American 'tribal'
groupings, there are no obvious racial division lines, as there are with
between Indians and Inuit. Does anyone have a better explanation?

>Adrian, I have also been following the change in language for "Indian" or as
>one Dene friend stated "Indian... that was Columbus' word, I'm Dene." The
>term "First Nations" is currently in use across most of Canada but how this
>term entered the discourse is unclear. Can you shed any light on this?
>Allan L. Patenaude
>School of Criminology
>Simon Fraser University
>Burnaby, B.C. V5A 1S6
>Canada email:

Adrian Tanner, Dept of Anthropology, Memorial University, St John's,
Newfoundland, Canada. A1C 5S7. email Tel 709 737
8868 fax 737 8686