Paula Miller
An image from the San Juan College Contest Pow Wow in 2012.

The Term ‘American Indian,’ Plus Ethnicity, Sovereignty, and Identity

Duane Champagne

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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Fred St Laurent
Fred St Laurent
Submitted by Fred St Laurent on
This is well said. In my opinion it is easier to control a lot of smaller groups. "Divide and Conquer" or divide and rule, was a Greek tactic that permeates Imperial Governments. It is easier to maintain order over many smaller groups than a powerful large one.

curtj's picture
Submitted by curtj on
American Indian, Ethnicity, Soverignty and Identity. what a farce! Why do we as the First People, allow us to be called Indian, or even for us to call ourselves Indian? Indian is a name given by Christopher Columbus, a lost slaver, rapist and mass murderer with 500,000 First Peoples murders to his credit who reportedly died of syphilis with a gaping hole where his nose used to be, who though he was in the Indies. We are not proud of our own names for our peoples if we accept the derogatory name Indians, we may as well move to India if we want to keep Indian as a term for us. Sovereignty is an empty term used by our leaders without an understanding of its meaning. We are sovereign only to where it does not infringe on the federal and state governments rights to steal our resources and lands. ie. Presidents signing of an apology to the First People here in America in the middle of the night as a add on to a different bill, with no First Peoples or leaders in sight. As a one more, Obama signed the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples rights under protest with the signing statement that we are sovereign and have rights as long as we don't interfere with our governments policies of theft and murder with our policies of colonialism America foists on other countries and on us. Our leaders have no original thoughts, they are thoroughly indoctrinated into the colonial education system, and as First Peoples leaders, have no clue and will not advocate for their people's resources, lands, culture and rights. Assimilation. Sickening when you realize that the same policies used against us to steal our lands and resources, are used against other countries whose inhabitants use terrorist attacks against us as a result. A neverending war on terror, self perpetuating and self sustaining with America spending the trillions to enrich a few balding white collar thieves and murderers.

kopczyn's picture
Submitted by kopczyn on
From outside position we see Western Hemisphere native peoples as one. We know that is not the case but it is easier to give them common description then deals with thousands of separate groups. Probably they saw us also as one group without recognizing for same purpose our diversity. We know how aggressive or intense USA federal system is. it looks practical to step up to confront it as unity (whatever is called) then trying to approach them from positions of small native nations or groups.