While enjoying my morning walk today, I couldn’t help thinking about the flood of Euro-centric arrogance that has covered or outright washed away the names, practices and histories of the original inhabitants of this country. Most of what the average American “knows” of these peoples is seen through the early and lasting filter of Europeanism.
Even the common names for the various peoples are tainted by the European mindset. Take “American Indian”, for example. My understanding is that the term “America” came from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian cartographer employed by the Portuguese. He mapped the coastlines of the country we now call the United States. Obviously, he was European and the powers-that-be of his time subscribed to the idea that you could claim land and name it for your monarch or whatever. Hence, “America”.
The name “Indian” comes to us from Columbus, a Spaniard. After talking the queen of Spain into hocking her jewels to fund his expedition, he set sail to the West; believing, correctly, that one could sail west far enough to reach “the East” and its trade potential. Sadly, he grossly underestimated the size of the Earth so, when he reached what is now the Caribbean and saw the brown skin of the natives, he concluded, incorrectly, that he had arrived at one of the outer islands of India. Thus, the native peoples became “Indians”, a misnomer that has stuck for centuries.
The blight of Euro-centrism goes further: There were never any native peoples called the “Sioux”. For the hundreds or even thousands of years that these people lived in this land, neither they nor anyone else ever called them “Sioux”. That is a French word that may have origins in the idea of “barbarian”.
Likewise, there never were any “Delaware” peoples. There were Lenape, Susquehannock, Munsee and others of the same origins but the term “Delaware” did not appear until the advent of the European. The Susquehanna Valley was deeded (more arrogance) to a certain Lord de Laware. A large number of the native peoples in question lived within that valley and its environs.
The Cherokee know themselves as “First People”; a much more fitting and accurate title. Many tribes have a name for their group that is similar in approach to that of the Cherokee. For instance “Children of the First Light” is the way the Wampanoag know themselves. I think it is time for the Native Peoples of this country to begin to assert their real names and throw off the phony monikers of the greedy and unconcerned. Yes, it will cause confusion at first, but it is high time that the World, particularly the U.S., came to know and assent to the truth.
I like the term “First People”, not just because I am Cherokee but because it is an apt and appropriate name for the multitude of individuals, groups and whole cultures who have lived in this land for many, many years, far exceeding the tenure of the hateful and myopic Europeans who just arrived one day and decided that it was all theirs.