The Term ‘American Indian,’ Plus Ethnicity, Sovereignty, and Identity
There is a widespread view that Native American identity has been shaped by ethnicity, sovereignty, and tribal citizenship. Ethnicity, sovereignty, and tribal citizenship are concepts that many Indian nations have adopted, but they originate primarily in U.S. society, and have been adapted by Indian nations under U.S. influence.
I would not say that Native American identity is shaped by ethnicity, rather Native American identity was and continues to be shaped by specific tribal cultures and traditions. American Indians do not form an ethnic group, they are composed of thousands of independent nations, communities, and cultures that have very different and specific identities.
Indian country is more like the multitude of nations that form the United Nations than a shared ethnicity. The concept of ethnicity oversimplifies American Indian identities and homogenizes the cultural, political, and diversity of American Indian identities.
“American Indian” is a mainstream label that is attached to thousands of indigenous nations for the sake of simplicity. The general use of the term American Indian implies a homogenization that does not exist. The expression describes the collectivity of American Indians who occupy similar political, cultural, and economic niches in relation to mainstream U.S. society. While the term American Indian is useful, it should only be used if one truly understands the diversity, complexity, and like marginality of American Indian nations, and does not imply any internal cultural or pan-national unity.
Similarly, I would not say that American Indian identity has been shaped by sovereignty, rather American Indian cultures and identities have informed and supported the use or appropriation of the Western concept of sovereignty. If we mean by sovereignty the right and power to make our own decisions, then sovereignty has been a part of Indian nations from time immemorial.
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