AP Photo
William "Lone Star" Dietz, head football coach of the Haskell Indians (and later the Washington Redskins), starts work on another of his paintings as Louis "Rabbit" Weller, halfback and captain of the Haskell football team, poses in costume at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., in this Nov. 16, 1931 file photo. (AP Photo)

Indian (yet not 'an' Indian)

Chelsey Luger

“We’ve got a real Indian with us this Thanksgiving!”

I cringe when I recall this announcement, which my hosts included in each and every introduction between me and their other guests during my first holiday away from home as a Dartmouth College freshman. It wasn’t worth it to fly all the way home to North Dakota for the long weekend, so a group of us went to a dorm-mate’s parents’ house in Connecticut. As much as I still appreciate the family for welcoming me into their lovely home and feeding me copious amounts of expensive food, I have to say that the number of times they felt the need to point out my race to the other guests was... uncomfortable. For me, at least. But hey, I guess it was my first Thanksgiving with a bunch of Whites too, so that was pretty neat. (Long Live the Pilgrims! But where are their fancy bonnets?)

Anyway, the point of this anecdote is to share an example of subtly inappropriate language. I was offended for being made a novelty at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but I was also annoyed by the choice of grammar within the offensive jest. You see, instead of choosing to describe me as a human or person who could be further described as American Indian ("This is Chelsey, and she is Indian"), I was grouped—human plus race—into one noun or object with an indefinite article ("This is Chelsey and she is an Indian." Sounds different, right?)

For the full effect, say it with a southern accent and a hint of fear in your voice, as if I’m thrusting a spear toward your face. “Ahhhh! Look out! It’s an Indian!”

'The Tourists' (1912), directed by Mack Sennett.

I’m suggesting that we should be careful about nuances in language when describing or discussing individuals of a certain ethnicity or racial background. It’s relevant now, because in the past few months, the Redskins debate has brought a lot of media attention to Native peoples. And from both pro and anti-Indian voices, I see a lot of people—obviously subconsciously—doing the same thing that the Connecticut hosts did to me. Commenters on social media, bloggers, and even writers from legitimate publications are adding the unnecessary indefinite article and dehumanizing us even further: an Indian. What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

It’s a subtlety in language that has the power to evoke varying degrees of respect. The indefinite article (a or an) should of course be used freely when referring to objects - like a candy bar, a book, or an orangutan. But it shouldn’t be used in front of an ethnicity, because it creates a demeaning connotation.

For example:

I wouldn’t say, “This is my friend Daniella and she’s a Jew.” Instead I would say, “This is my friend Daniella, and she is Jewish.”

A tasteful writer wouldn’t say, “I spoke to a Mexican about the event,” they would say, “I spoke to a Mexican man about the event.”

And finally, I would say, “This is my friend Melanie, and she is White,” or “She’s a White person” but never “she’s a White.” (Notice how I did it up there in paragraph one and it sounded disrespectful? Go back and look and tell me you don’t disagree!)

I should acknowledge that there are instances when placing an indefinite article in front of a nationality or other group is fine. For example, “I’m an American.” That, I would say, is appropriate. No negative connotations whatsoever. You might even be able to think of even more exceptions. I can’t right now. That said, I’d just like to reiterate that while being called “an Indian” is nothing that I’m particularly outraged by, it is irritating because it’s one of many ways that the public affords slightly less respect to Native peoples than to other races or ethnic groups. We deal with a host problems regarding objectification and misnomers, so if writers would be a little bit more careful, it would be much appreciated.

Remember: I am Indian, but I am not an Indian.

P.S. The other highlight of the weekend was the part when we were all hanging out in the guest house (these Whites and their innumerable properties—they kill me!) and the father asked if I’d like a drink. I said “No, thanks.” He replied, “Oh I forgot… you’re never supposed to give an Indian whiskey!” I didn’t say anything, but I wish I had responded, “And you, 65-year-old family man and self-declared, well-respected doctor and businessman, should remember that you are breaking both legal and moral codes by offering alcohol to a vulnerable group of 18-year-old co-eds under your care for the weekend.”

Didn’t think to do it. 

Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota. An alumna of Dartmouth College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in New York City and remains an avid student of global indigenous politics and history. She hopes to play her role as a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger. (Photo: Eller Bonifacio.)

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curtj's picture
Submitted by curtj on
First off, the First People have to figure out what they want to call themselves. Every tribe has their own name they call themselves. Indian is a name the famous lost slaver, rapist and mass murderer Christopher Columbus named our race when he thought he was somewhere else. Maybe our people keep the name Indian because they are impressed Columbus murdered on up to 500,000 Indigenous People. To keep the name Indian, means our people are not proud enough of their own names, and are impressed with the murdering skills of Columbus. If our leaders are not proud of their people, what lengths will they go to advocate for, and protect their peoples rights, resources and lands? In Alaska, our leaders are silent and refuse to tell their people what gives the state and federal governments the right to take the Indigenous Peoples resources and lands. Our leaders tell their people not to fish for king salmon, although there is a big spawning run going by their villages. They tell their people not to fish and refuse to say anything about the commercial fisheries and the obscene by catch of salmon that is thrown overboard. 10 years ago on the news the by catch was so huge that they said that 18 wheelers stretched bumper to bumper, would stretch from Anchorage to Nome, following the coast line. Our leaders have made their careers by giving their peoples resources and lands away for a tiny fraction of a per cent of their worth, and then are trained to hold their hands out begging for money from the same governments stealing their lands and resources. Which boils down to a bastardized version of the "Stockholm Syndrome". Look it up yourselves and quit depending on others for your research on things. Our leaders are trained by the colonial education system that indoctrinates them to give their peoples possessions away and not advocate for their peoples Valid Existing Rights, fishing and hunting rights, resources and lands. So what kind of a education system should we, as First Peoples, or Indigenous People, utilize, that advocates for the Indigenous People?

Sergio Andrés Yepes
Sergio Andrés Yepes
Submitted by Sergio Andrés Yepes on
Hello Chelsey, great article, thanks for your take on language and the many ways we depict others and our self's. You see, some times we don't see the perspective of others, not so much out of ignorance, but simply because we haven't taken a broader perspective. Take for example the last paragraph of your article... you name american, whats does american describe for you? Because for me as Colombian-latino-mestizo-mixedblooded-american that leaves in America, in the South, under the influence of North America or rather the USA, when people of any race, gender, views, say American... it is indeed reinforcing the Monroe Doctrine, America for the Americans, if that doctrine were not imperialistic in its essence, all Americans -north-mezzo-south- (Abyayala - Itzachilatlan and many other names that encompass as all) then we could vote for the president of the USA. That is not the case. Even amongst people from South America, people walk around and call Americans, to people from the USA... in a subconscious manner, they walk around belonging to your America (the state, not the continent). And where is the rest of the continent? and where are all the other native nations? and where are all the other cultures? We do have a long journey ahead until we unroot bigotry from our hearts and minds... natives in south america are gaining spaces in culture, politics and all areas of life, and language has been unkind to our ancestors, but we have grown, and the time has come for mestizos and whites and natives and asians and africans to stop looking at each other with distrust... we all leave in this continent, we are all the children of this mother earth, we are all the children of the sun, the children of maiz. We are one continent... thanks for your writing, thanks for being an avenue between the world of native america and white anglo saxon indo european afro asian latino descent... we should treasure our qualities, nurture the best in us and embrace our spirits given by the creator. Mitakuye Oyasin - Ñu - Amen - Que asi sea - Inlakesh - Namaste

curtj's picture
Submitted by curtj on
As Indigenous with our own names for our Tribes and Tribal members, why do our so called leaders refuse to call their people by the names bestowed on them by our ancestors? Instead they unprotestingly take the name bestowed on them by famous lost slaver, rapist and slaver who according to some reports, died of syphilis, Columbus. If they want to call themselves Indians, maybe they should move to India where American jobs were outsourced to.

Lee Lewis
Lee Lewis
Submitted by Lee Lewis on
Good article. I have two comments about it. Looking specifically at the paragraph that says, " I should acknowledge that there are instances when placing an indefinite article in front of a nationality or other group is fine. For example, “I’m an American.” That, I would say, is appropriate. No negative connotations whatsoever. You might even be able to think of even more exceptions. I can’t right now. That said, I’d just like to reiterate that while being called “an Indian” is nothing that I’m particularly outraged by, it is irritating because it’s one of many ways that the public affords slightly less respect to Native peoples than to other races or ethnic groups. We deal with a host problems regarding objectification and misnomers, so if writers would be a little bit more careful, it would be much appreciated. Remember: I am Indian, but I am not an Indian." "I am an American." This can be said be said equally by Canadians, members of the USA, Mexico, and South America. We are all from the Americas and we are all Americans. And then, "I am Indian, but I am not an Indian." If your ancestors do not hail from India, then claiming to be "Indian" is just perpetuating the long time set error of the term "Indian." I am Cherokee, Pawnee, and Irish. I have no Indian ancestry. I speak a little Hindi & Gujerati, but I am NOT Indian. Just my opinion.

Marc Mullinex
Marc Mullinex
Submitted by Marc Mullinex on
Hello, a great article all round, however... (You knew that was coming) Here's the problem, you talk about “This is my friend Melanie, and she is White,” or “She’s a White person” but never “she’s a White.” I think the problem is you carried on to far. "This is my friend Melanie." That's all that really needs to be said. Your friends family probably thought they were funny, they weren't. I've been introduced in America as " This is Marc, he's a brit." I'm a person. My nationality or heritage isn't relevant. (admittedly once I open my mouth it will become pretty damn clear I'm british) What I'm trying to say, with less success than I had hoped, I suspect, is that the problem isn't to me about the descriptive, the problem is that people feel the need to use one at all. Anyway, thanks for reading this warble, keep up the good work. Marc

Wanbli Koyake's picture
Wanbli Koyake
Submitted by Wanbli Koyake on
Hau mitakuyepi, Greetings my Relatives, Wopila cicu, I'm grateful that we Original Peoples have strong, brave, young women such as Chelsey who are looking out for the well-being of Original Peoples. I say brave because broaching the unspeakable subject of White Elephants In The Living Room isn't an easy thing to do. Especially speaking from the belly of the greatest, most voracious, wealthiest, "most free", most violent, most genocidal, White Elephant in the biggest, widest, Living Room, ever! While it’s good to see the strength of our youth; we must remember, of course, that it’s due to our ancestry. We cannot take too much credit for our being in this Life, our physical being, our very health and Life, are gifts that our ancestors struggled, strived, and sacrificed to leave us, their future generations. It is our responsibility to show the world what we are made of –how we embody our Ancestors, our family and Peoples, our kinship with Life! Our Ancestors took care of themselves (kinship within oneself) and knowing their well-being came from their Elder Relatives in Life, they took care to maintain kinship with All Peoples, All of Life. They left the world to their future generations as they found it –whole, alive and healthy! They also left us with the wisdom that we, the children of Life/Father Sky&Mother Earth, are all Peoples/Nations (not races, tribes, bands, ethnicities, not nation states or nationalities); moreover, we two-leggeds were the last one made when everything was made: we're the Babies of the Family of Life! Other Civilizations have acknowledged this kinship order, even western civilization wrote it down in the christian bible. Accordingly, our Ancestors looked to the non-human side of Life for guidance. They saw that family, extended family, are what make a Nation, a People. The idea of race –and all its progeny– are meant to establish an artificial hierarchical order in Life; a top-down, divinely/naturally ordained, heirarchy that puts White-skins at the top of the heap. Other skins are ranked on a light to dark scale, lighter being better and darker being worse. White Power and Privilege are the payoff –and danger. As they say, with Great Power comes Great Responsibility! You gotta be brave to point out and name White Power and Privilege in the company of White People! Not much will come of it, except a circling of wagons (even a single white person can circle wagons!) and a barrage of rageful accusations of racism, reverse racism, etc. Don't circle the circled wagons, like they did in the movies, get out of there, go home and lick your wounds. That’s where strength comes in. And we got it –along with resiliency– from our Ancestors and also our modern experience (since 1492) of living under Genocide. That’s present tense, Genocide. It’s ongoing, it’s not historical, it didn’t just happen to our Ancestors. It’s a malevolent force of human nature that cannot be called back once set in motion. It's a queer thing, an idiosyncrasy, that race/racial superiority gives license to White People to freely label non-whites; yet hold themselves above such labeling, misnomering, themselves. Non-Whites are not authorized to describe, name, or reference Whiteness! Maybe that's why White Elephants are unmentionable! If it's a “colored” elephant it's okay to name away! White Power and Privilege also determine what gets discussed and what words are appropriate or inappropriate. From our point of view, pointing out a friends’ obvious whiteness is unnecessary given the glare in the room. From the white persons p.o.v. it’s unnecessary too, but for different reasons. You see, White Can’t Stand The Light! Be forewarned, the unearned, illegitimate, nature of white superiority/supremacy isn’t just expressed in violent, blatant, ways. White Racism/Power/Privilege is way more sophisticated than that. The Wasicu (Fat Takers, modern translation, Greedy, Greedheads) are notoriously insane. And if you aren’t insane like them, you don’t buy into their thinking (racism), language (racist), behavior (anthropocentrism&racism&speciesism), then You’re suspect; you’ll be treated accordingly and be demoted on their socio-economic ladder! On the subject of words, my Elders would say, “Be careful what you say, words are powerful, they can hurt or heal. Words are alive! In that regard, Wasicu has always meant Fat Taker, meaning selfish, self-centered and stingy; nowadays it’s used racially, meaning white people. Notice that the original meaning was about behavior. There’s no reference to physical being. If you make war on monsters, be careful you don’t become one yourself! Unfortunately we Original Peoples sometimes go crazy from the Genocide, so we act Wasicula, we wanna be Wasicu! Don’t worry, nobody’s irredeemable, even our pitiable relatives, the White Peoples! Wowapi na wicoiye hecetu welo, Mitakuye Owasin! My words and written words are true, All my Relations!

bwaikiki's picture
Submitted by bwaikiki on
Excellent article but some prejudice on her part also shows through on Southerners and a Southern accent. Most Southerners (living in the South before 1900) are proud to claim Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, etc. descent. Southerners are now as maligned in film, TV, and now this article as the Native people once were. I realize in some areas prejudice against Indians is alive and well, but please don't make a Southern accent your bad example.

redwood's picture
Submitted by redwood on
Personally, I would have been offended that the topic came up at all. Why were you not just introduced as "This is Chelsea, and she's a friend from school where our daughter (or son) attends." Would they have had to explain if you had been black? Or if you'd been of Asian heritage? Or, would the conversation have led to "Oh, really? But you're not fullblood, are you?" They always want to know your blood quantum, don't they? Do they ask a black person how much African blood he or she may actually have? The fact that you may be a member of a federally-recognized tribe seems to be a topic for a little further into a relationship. Perhaps it would come after, "And where are you from originally, Chelsea?" "I'm from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota." "How interesting! Does that mean you are Sioux?" "We actually refer to ourselves as Lakota, and through my other parent, I'm also Ojibwe from Turtle Mountain Reservation." About this time, I'm sure the questions about blood quantum will arise... and you can handle that as you see fit! This scene brings back memories of my failed first marriage to a non-Native... and the awkwardness of my relationship with my in-laws, who never failed to introduce me as "Indian." They tried hard to not "not offend" me, but their constant pussy-footing around the topic always had the effect of making me feel as if I was forever "other."

Karma2's picture
Submitted by Karma2 on
I had a similar experience in Connecticut-- my girlfriend and I stayed in town for fall break and invited a white roommate to have Thanksgiving dinner with us (I love all that Indian food that is called Thanksgiving food). She kept giggling and said, "I can't believe I'm having Thanksgiving dinner with Indians." It's interesting how unreal "Indians" are to white New Englanders in that setting-- that story is so mythic to them, I think it might be like having dinner with br'er rabbit or Jesus or something. She was very reflective about why it seemed so funny to her, and understood better then how potent those representations of Indians that she had been fed her whole life really were.

rockymissouri's picture
Submitted by rockymissouri on
Great article.. Love the photo of the gentleman being painted. It's wonderful.

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
a paradox??? I have always found it strange that we indiginees call ourselves 'indians' instead of our own names...I find it even stranger that black people call themselves 'black' even if they have one molecule of 'black' blood...how come we NATIVE americans are all the time running around trying to prove how many molecules of 'indigenous' blood we have, and always coming up short in the eyes of the u s govt., our own 'tribal' govts, other 'indians' etc...