Indians Meet Indians: What Happens When Two Groups of People Have the Same Name? Interview with Dr. Anton Treuer.


Anton Treuer

Every child in America knows the story of Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue and “discovering” America and its peoples. He named the indigenous inhabitants Indians because he thought he was in India. People from India were already called Indians by the Europeans. The name stuck in both places. Since 1492, the English speaking world has had two groups of people called Indians. What do we do today when two people have the same name in English? It is an interesting by-product of globalization that many cultures called Indian from India and America get a chance to interact in the United States. What an opportunity! It makes me wonder if this has happened anywhere else on the planet.

The use of Indian as a native identifier is what is commonly used in Indian country today and has been for hundreds of years.  This post will not discuss the issues around the word but for the record, many American Indian people prefer to be called by their tribal nation. For current context read Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians but Were Afraid To Ask and a new video by the National Congress of American Indians.  In the United States 2010 census there were 3.2 million Asian Indians and they are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country.  In Minnesota, Indians from India are the fastest growing ethnic group and doubled their numbers from 16,887 in 2000 to 33,031 in 2010. In 2010, Eden Prairie, Minnesota Asian Indians were 4.2% of the city residents compared to the native Indians at .2%. This population growth has even influenced the local AMC Theater chain to dedicate screen time to Bollywood movies.

The Indian demonym, (the term for the identifier) has become confusing as more people from India have immigrated or are working in America and mixing with all groups of Americans. Several identifiers are commonly used. For example, the US Census uses Asian.  I grew up hearing East Indians to distinguish from American Indians and currently I read and hear just Indian.  Sometimes I hear or read Asian Indian. Some of my friends from Indian have told me that those words are offensive to them. They prefer Indian.

Another point of confusion is the federal and state censuses. For starters, as students and families register in public schools, they have to identify themselves by race. The typical census forms show several categories from which to choose but the two that are available to both groups is American Indian/Alaskan native or Asian/Pacific Islander. If one is new to this country, American Indian could be a choice to make. This choice becomes an issue when schools need accurate reporting data for No Child Left Behind reporting and accuracy for the American Indian Education programs. As a result, Indians from India show up on the American Indian data reports. It is important for public institutions, for example, to have accurate data because they receive state and federal funding based on what should be accurate representations of their populations.

I reached out to Dr. Anton Treuer, celebrated author of Everything You always Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask and professor of American Indian history at Bemidji State University, to weigh in on this discussion.

Interview with Dr. Treuer

Thank you Tony for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Also, congratulations on the publication of your new book, The Atlas of Indian Nations!

Thank you! It is being previewed now and will be sale in September or October.

Tony, what are thoughts about this phenomenon of two groups of people living in America with the same name?

First of all, it is important for all people to be validated and respected. It is easy to see how the term being used for two different people would cause confusion. And that confusion may fuel or trigger misunderstandings, hurt feelings or misassociations. So navigating a path forward, it would be useful to have a mutually agreed upon terminology that makes everyone happy. I think the discussion gets bogged down because Native Americans do not have a universal mind on terminology. That doesn’t mean though that people don’t care although sometimes it can get read that way.

Who owns the name? Is that even possible?

That’s a tough one to answer. Names should be owned and originated by the people they reference. Unfortunately that’s not how they have originally evolved. Going forward it would be good to empower Native Americans and people from India to choose the labels that make most sense to them for self-reference and for other’s reference.  Some confusions need to be clarified from context rather than calling people feathers or dots; or green vs. red.

Thank you Tony for sharing insights and ways we can address this reality! What I hear you saying is that we should look to the people themselves to share how they would like to be called rather than making up a name for them.

We cannot undo the past but it important what we do today. First, it is critical that data which affects groups in regards to achievement, voting areas and state/federal funds for example, needs to be accurate. Second, everyone has the right to identify themselves with a name and nation as stated in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document.  The many diverse cultures called Indian from the United States, like the Dakota, Ojibwe, Mesquakie, for example, and India such as Hindi, Punjabi, and Bihari, for example, present us with a unique opportunity to celebrate our new diversity!