Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Indian" words: Teaching about Indians, Part II

In children's books (and TV, movies, etc.) there are many words that are used to denote Indian people, their artifacts. These words are used uncritically, generally accepted as appropriate or correct. I want to poke at that usage a bit, prompting readers to pause a moment to think about those words.

For starters, there are over 500 different American Indian tribes/nations recognized by the US Government at the present time. Add to that the tribes/nations recognized by a state government and all those not recognized by the federal or state government, let alone the numbers of tribes/nations that existed prior to 1492, and you've got a huge number. They did not speak a common language, religion, material culture, etc.

Nonetheless, in children's books, a baby is a papoose, a woman is a squaw, a man is a brave or chief, and when they die, they go to the happy hunting ground.

The reality? Each tribe has its own word for baby, woman, man. If you're reading a story set at Nambe Pueblo (that is where I am from), and the author uses a word for woman, that word should be the Tewa (language we speak) word: kwee.

Course, the English word grandma would be fine, too.


kittens not kids said...

if the "whimsical allusion to an infant's entrance to society" is the correct etymology of papoose, then I think it's a great word and should be used by everyone. It's a shame, though, that it has become one of those offensive and generic words for "Indian baby" like squaw or chief.

it still boggles my mind how resistant most of the US is to giving up offensive or incorrect (or both!) terminology and imagery concerning native populations....

Anonymous said...

I THINK Debbie's point was that each tribe has specific names or ways of naming members of families and that, either we should use the closest normal, everyday English that we can come to those names and terms like "grandmother" or else we should use the specific word in that specific language (with a pronunciation help). The point is that we need to understand and appreciate the diversity, the indivudaility of Native American tribes not invent generalized terms of our own which, to my mind, is creating artificial "boxes" of our own into which we put Native Americans.

Her point is exactly right how again and again the white majority culture, again and again GENERALIZES about Native Americans, instead of appreciating the incredible and rich diversity among them.

What is terribly sad to reflect upon is how much we will never know about the millions of Native Americans, the hundreds of Indian tribes, who were killed off by European diseases on the North American and South American continents before the first English settlers ever set foot in North America. It is utterly heartrending to think about how much was lost then.

I am using NAtive American here becasue Debbie is using it in her blog, but I understand that Sherman Alexie has no probelm with the word "Indian." So, I used both.

Anonymous said...

I was curious to see what was first written about "papoose," so I went to my Oxford English Dictionary, which cites where and when a word or phrase is first used (although, alas, I could not find "happy hunting ground.") But that may have been the teeny tiny type thwarting me...

So, William Wood's sentence was "This little Papppouss travells about with his bare footed mother to paddle in the Icie Clammbankes." The OED further states that it is originally an Algonquin or Pequot word.