A common phrase used to describe minority or underrepresented populations is "people of color." American Indians are not, to quote Elizabeth Cook Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe and founding editor of Wicazo Sa (a leading journal in American Indian Studies), "people of color." Cook-Lynn writes:
Native populations in America are not "ethnic" populations; they are not "minority" populations, neither immigrant nor tourist, nor "people of color." They are the indigenous peoples of this continent. They are landlords, with very special political and cultural status in the realm of American identity and citizenship. Since 1924, they have possessed dual citizenship, tribal and U.S., and are the only population that has not been required to deny their previous national citizenship in order to possess U.S. citizenship. They are known and documented as citizens by their tribal nations. (1)She goes on to say that placing us within a multicultural or ethnic studies category has a negative effect because those categories obliterate our political difference. The political dimension she refers to is our status as sovereign nations, a distinction based on treaty and trust agreements made between early European nations who came to what we now call the United States, and, later agreements made between the United States and Native Nations. Those agreements are diplomatic negotiations that take place between heads of state.
The idea that American Indians would engage in diplomatic negotiations may seem ridiculous to those who were taught to think that American Indians were primitive nomadic peoples who roamed the earth (just like animals) and didn't "properly" use the land they lived on! In fact, Laura Ingalls Wilder says precisely that in Little House on the Prairie, when the character named Mrs. Scott says on page 211:
All they [Indians] do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it.Truth is, Native peoples--including the Native Nations in Indian Territory that Mrs. Scott derides--had been farming for centuries. And after being removed to Indian Territory through the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees built "the finest system of public education in all America, for men and women." (2)
These diplomatic negotiations took place amongst the Pueblo Indians, too. The nineteen Pueblo Indian tribes of what is now known as New Mexico had agreements with Spain in the 1500s, Mexico in the 1820s and then the United States in the 1840s. Leaders of each one (Spain, Mexico, U.S.) marked their recognition of our sovereignty with a silver headed cane that symbolized that recognition. The last cane was from President Lincoln. Today, the three canes at each Pueblo are held by the individual who is serving as the current governor. (3) You can see a 1936 photograph of the governor of Zia here. He is holding the three canes.
Generally speaking, schools in the United States do not include instruction about tribal nations and our sovereignty.
Native children, however, who grow up on their reservations, know a lot about such matters. They know, for example, that we elect our leaders and have our own police forces and court systems.
Understanding sovereignty can help people understand why the phrase "people of color" doesn't work when describing American Indians, and I believe that reading AICL will help understand sovereignty and a great many dimensions of who we were, and who we are in today's United States. Understanding sovereignty will help authors and illustrators--and editors and reviewers--realize why books about American Indians need to go beyond the use of broad terms like American Indian or Native Americans, and use the names of specific tribal nations.
Update (December 5, 2015):
From time to time I receive a comment that asks if I consider myself a person of color. I have darker skin and hair. Some would look at me and say that I am a person of color. By that definition (appearance), I am. But the larger point of this post and Cook-Lynn's argument is that we are--first and foremost--citizens or members of a political entity that has status nationally and internationally. I do not reject the "of color" phrase. I reject the efforts to do a force-fit of who we are. We are nations and our citizens are people of color, but the most important distinction is our nationhood.
(1) Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. "Scandal," in Wicazo Sa Review, Spring 2007, page 86.
(2) See "New Cherokee Territory" (segment eight) in We Shall Remain: Trail of Tears.
(3) Sando, Joe S. (1992) Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.