Dignity of a Culture Rests Not in a Name

COMMENT

July 30, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

My daughter went to camp this summer, the theme being Native Americans.

The activities were pretty much like any other day camp -- the quality of snacks was a major focus for the kids. But the stories and the crafts and the play centered on the ways of the American Indian tribes. It was done with dignity, to inculcate an appreciation of the heritage and folkways of these cultures, and with support of an Indian group that performed traditional dances one day.

It was a positive experience, if an eclectic one: The program picked diverse, even generic, tribes and customs for the youngsters to learn about. It was fun and it was educational.

The camping program also demonstrated that it is the attitude and the approach toward different cultures that is important, not the timorous application of some politically correct Band-Aid that ignores those differences.

While the program's title referred to Native Americans, the camp leaders did not shirk from using the term "Indian" and "American Indian" to describe the cultures and the peoples. There was certainly nothing disrespectful, nothing pejorative in the use of those terms.

The interchangeable names did create some confusion for younger campers, who raised the question that a lot of us silently ask: Why are they "native" Americans and we are not? Indeed.

Isn't anyone born in this country a native American? Isn't this a country of all Americans? Or, conversely, a land composed entirely of immigrants? Anthropologists tell us that the first inhabitants of North America immigrated here from the Asian continent, even if thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot on these shores.

Without straying too deeply into the groves of academic exploration, one can see a great difference between those inhabitants of Alaska and those of the Southeast, to say nothing of the differences between the pre-Columbian denizens of North America and those of South America. (Then there are Thor Heyerdahl's trans-Pacific migration theories, which provide another twist.)

Native American, in the governmental use today, extends to Hawaiians and Eskimos as well as to American Indians, further obscuring the identity.

Is there any truly documented autochthon (a fancy word for the earliest known inhabitant) of this land? Depends on which land we're talking about. But early inhabitant does not mean native, in any case.

At the same time, one can understand the use of the term Native American. It's an attempt to avoid the heavy historical baggage of the term Indian that is a disgraceful part of U.S. history. It is also a decision to adopt a name that some believe is more fitting; Indian, after all, was the term originated by Columbus and his followers who erroneously thought they had arrived in India.

With time, most of us will accept the term Native American without thinking. We'll use it for yesteryear's Indians and for today's people who choose to identify themselves as such. Most of the rest of us won't worry about whether it's accurate, or feel that it unfairly disparages other kinds of native Americans.

That is, we will if Native American remains the label of choice and prevails in the arena of popular use (without legal challenge?).

Preferred terms for ethnic groups seem to change more TC frequently these days, with persisting divisions of opinion within members of those groups. Leaders of the American Indian Movement chose that activist organization's name in the 1970s; many shun the use of the term Native American, calling it a sell-out to the government.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs endures, even if bureaucrats tend to use Native American in official parlance. Yet groups struggle for government recognition as Indian tribes, for economic advantages.

The story of continuing change in ethnic appellation can be seen in people who now use the term African-American to describe themselves. Once it was Negro, then colored, then black and Afro-American. Now it's African-American, hyphenated, just like Polish-American or Italian-American or Irish-American. And organizations that promote the causes of these people remain confident in the names of yesteryear: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, United Negro College Fund.

A similar evolution occurred for Latin Americans, who have over the years chosen to use Hispanic, Chicano, Latino, Ibero-American and so on. Because many of them relate to a specific ancestral country, they are more likely to adopt a name that makes that distinction, such as Cuban-American and Mexican-American. In fact, in Central and South America, the citizens of the United States (and often, Canada, too) are properly referred to as "North Americans."

The search for the proper ethnic and cultural identification and title is further confused as humanity is forever mixing its gene pools and changing temporal citizenships. The U.S. bureaucracy sways between demanding specific racial/cultural identity on the one hand and strictly forbidding any questions about it on the other hand. National origins are a point of pride for some individuals, a vestigial tie purposely ignored by others.

In any case, my native American was thoroughly fascinated by her experience at camp, learning to value the cultures and customs of diverse American tribes, no matter what they may choose to call themselves.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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