Native peoples of the America were thought of in early philosophy as being Red Indians, fitting perfectly into a color wheel of peoples of the earth, White people being from Europe, Black people being from Africa, Brown peoples being from the Mediterranean and surrounding regions, Yellow people being from Asia, and Red people being the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. This was common thought in European philosophy that predated the creation of anthropology and most other social sciences (I don’t have the references, just go with this for now). Anthropology was not really borne until the 1850s with Anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan writing books about Indians. Morgan developed a version of Social Darwinism by placing different civilizations into a top down model of development. Native peoples were barbarians, at the lower level of Morgan’s model, while Europeans, i.e.: Western Civilization was of course at the highest level of “civilization.” Because of this, I have taken to writing about the Kalapuyan civilization in several of my essays, a prod at Morgan and his ilk, and a way to caste the Kalapuyans in a new light which helps enable rethinking much of what we know about Kalapuyan peoples’ culture and lifeways. Many anthropologists today accept that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of human civilizations, that these notions were created well before scientists or really anyone have a universal vision of the different cultures of humanity, and that they are severely biased towards the culture, society, and context of the creator of the paradigms. As such there are simply different cultures of humans in the world, none better that any others, some have advantages over others, privileges that are hard to defeat for those who do not have privileges. White privilege, male privilege, wealth is privilege, religion can be a privilege, and culture itself can be a privilege.
Within this reality, our American culture (also a privilege) continues to use pejorative terms for Native peoples without pause. The most egregious word is Redskins, but words like squaw, Indian, metis, siwash, redmen, brave, chief, tipi and even Rez or reservation can be racial slurs depending on how they are used, and who uses them. The racial slur of any of these words is in how it is used, the context, which is normally in conjunction with a racial stereotype. There are perfectly acceptable ways to use most of these words, without using them as a racial slur. But the use of many racial stereotypes about Native people is part of the privilege of otherAmericanss, most of whom know nothing about Native people, take no responsibility for the use of the terms, think that they are somehow honoring Native peoples, and would not accept similar racial stereotypes about Blacks, Asians, or Latinx peoples because they are considered racist.
An example of the use of Rez as a slur, is when people ask how far you have to travel from the rez? They are assuming that you like all other Natives live on a reservation, rather than living in an American town. Many people have these assumptions, even though close to 70 percent of all Native peoples do not live on their reservation, if they have one. But most people, American know nothing of Native peoples, only what they have seen on TV, in the Movies, or read in a history book. The “Rez” word is even used quite a bit in movies and on TV. I have been hearing the phrase “off the rez” in numerous Hollywood produced shows as a common phrase. It means that someone is outside of where they are supposed to be, like Native peoples are supposed to be living on a Rez, and not living In American society like “regular Americans.” I take it back; the word should never be used by non-native people.
The words “Indian” and “Indians” is another stereotype of Native peoples. I think we are all clear now that Columbus created the term in reference to “los Indios” (Spanish for Native people) he encountered in the Caribbean. Many scholars and students now decry the use of “Indian” and “Indians” because it is a non-descriptive generalization of who we are as Native peoples. There are some 1000 or more tribes, cultures of Native peoples in the Americas and there is nothing in common except what land masses we live on. We all have unique names for ourselves. So, there is no “Indian culture” there are not “Indian people.” There are people native to their lands, or Native peoples, Indigenous peoples, First Nations, American Indian, and Native American peoples are most acceptable generalizations. Some people have problems with these phrasings too. There are proper ways to address Native peoples in context as well. Legal and political contexts use Native Americans, as parts of laws. Older scholarly programs and use American Indians, but the trend is now turning to Indigenous Nations or Indigenous Peoples. Historians really must use the word “Indians” in context of the historic era they write about so that they do not alter history. Altering or washing history of the word “Indian” would do a disservice to all peoples who need to understand the racial and political contexts of Native peoples of all eras. By the way I am Kalapuyan, Chinook and Takelman, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and not simply an “Indian.”
There are many terms that are based on poor knowledge of Native cultures. Many people still assume that Native people grow up in Tipis, and are not aware that not all tribes had a tipi, but it’s a housing structure for peoples of the plains and Plateau and Great Basin but not the Northwest Coast or many other Native culture regions. Similarly, the word chief is a serious problem. I have been called “Chief” by people I have known for several years. They do not even know what they are doing. A chief is a well-respected leader of a tribe that’s is chosen by the people and normally maintains they status their whole life. The casual use of “Chief” in public is really shocking, and I have heard it a lot. I have seen in used in movies and TV and at those times it is shocking. My best retort is now, “How did you know?”
Redskin is a term with direct reference to genocide. The context of its use, was in the American West, when colonization and settlement was occurring, the white Americans wanted to remove the tribes from the lands and resources they wanted as their own. The tribes were not too happy with an invasion of the White men, some called literally “Whitemen” who disregarded the previous long-term presence of the tribes, ignored tribal laws, denigrated tribes as savages and heaths, and indiscriminately killed any Native people, men, women, and children simply because they were in the way of settlement or gold mining. Tribes upset that all of their lands and resources were being taken away, or plowed under, began seeking retribution, by stealing from the settlers, and sometimes killing them in an attempt to maintain their sovereignty and/or drive these newcomers away. Some ten years into settlement in Oregon and all of the best lands were claimed in the Willamette Valley leaving nothing for the tribes. Settlement and creating farms on former tribal lands plowed under root crops and fenced off whole prairies so that the tribes lost valuable food sources.
By 1850 the tribes in the most settled regions were starving as they were unable to put up enough winter stores of preserved and dried foods, and most settlers refused to share their food with savages, so many tribal people began to steal to survive. Then settlers upset that their “property” was being stolen passed laws which allowed voluntary militias to take retribution on tribes for bad behaviors and recoup their losses of supplies and expenses for their campaigns from state and territorial funds. In this manner, hundreds of tribes were attacked and nearly or completely wiped out because a horse was stolen or a cow was taken to feed the tribe. There was not a trial, there were no authorities issuing warrants to bring thieves to justice in a court system, the militias simply killed whole villages, men, women, and children. And if there were captives taken, many would not survive to be taken to a fort. This was genocide of entire populations of tribes. Tribal peoples had no standing in the American court system and many judges would not allow them to testify so there was never a way to hold the militias accountable for murders.
Several states and territories allow the members of militias and regular Americans to collect bounties on Redskin scalps as proof of their work. California and Oregon are famous for this. But the federal government also allowed “depredation” claims from Americans who would claim that they had lost property to Indians, and so they could get paid for their losses to tribes. There was no similar process for tribes. Tribes could not claim that Americans had taken their lands and resources and get paid back for encroachments and squatting by Americans on tribal lands. They could not take murder or rape charges to an American court for the actions of gold miners against their people. The context of the Redskin phrase then is deep within the United States history of Manifest Destiny, and state-sponsored colonization, and genocide of tribal land and peoples. Redskins today most people only know as a NFL football team, but for Native peoples it represents genocide of our people, and the colonization of our lands and our loss then of sovereignty and the resulting history of losses and federally sponsored mistreatment which has gone on for some 180 years.
The rules for using these terms shift when tribal people use them. Words like “Indian” and “skin” are common on reservations and in native communities. Native people have essentially owned the terms and use them for their own purposes. In most Native communities among community members there are no outlawed terms, and these are not even issues. Academically educated Native peoples and allies though have studied and know the origin of the terms and are generally more conscious and pickier about the use of such pejorative terms.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.