Sunday, October 30, 2016

What is wrong with the phrase "First Americans"?

Characterizing Native peoples as "First Americans" is not accurate. You've probably seen that phrase used to describe Native peoples, right?

The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose, with illustrations by Bryna Waldman, is one example. Here's the cover. As you see, I've put a large red x over the cover to let you know, visually, that I do not recommend the book:

So: what is wrong with the phrase "First Americans"?

The Native peoples of this continent were not "Americans". They were--and are--organized societies who chose/choose their leaders and who engaged in trade with other Native Nations.

See? We were nations before the United States of America was a nation. Our nations decided who its citizens were, and, we still do that.

The other problem with this book? The use of past tense verbs, as shown in these two sentences from the book:
Tribes like the Chinook, the Makah, and the Salish made their homes near the water along the northwest coast of America.
The Makah were very good whale hunters. 
Aimed at pre-school and elementary aged children, The Very First Americans was published in 1993 by Grosset & Dunlap. You can still get a new copy which probably means, unfortunately, that it is still in print.

Divided into several geographic locations, the book provides an overview of several nations, but the language is all past tense.

And then, on the final page, the author opens with present tense, saying that
Today, almost two million American Indians make their homes in this country. More than a third live on reservations. The rest live in cities and towns. Many Indians say they "walk in two worlds." 
But her final sentence goes back to that error, calling Native peoples "first Americans":
They are part of today's America, but at the same time, they keep the ways of their people--the very first Americans.
I wish that I had a nonfiction book, in-hand, to recommend for young children... A book that would give them accurate information. The only one that comes to mind is Simon Ortiz's The People Shall Continue, but it is out of print. You can get a used copy online. Find one, get it, and use it instead of ones that use "First Americans" in them. You can also choose picture books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer, that provide children information that is accurate. In it, a young girl is learning to do a dance. Through the author's note, Smith tells us that the girl is a member (citizen) of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.


Anonymous said...

Is "First Nations" only a Canadian thing?

Debbie Reese said...

It is used primarily by the First Nations of Canada but I've also seen it used in the US. See, for example, the First Nations Development Institute, located in Colorado.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about your decision to equate "Americans" with only the peoples inhabiting the United States of America. Many others would beg to differ with this. Similarly, if the continents are not called North America or South America, what are they to be called? This is an ongoing problem of terminology (no good term exists in English for specifically residents of the United States), which is not simply a Native issue.

There are other notable problems with his book, as you have pointed out, so suffice to say it is not recommendable for those reasons.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, I do not see anywhere in Debbie's post equating Americans as the only people inhabiting the USA. What her post says is, "The Native peoples of this continent were not "Americans". They were--and are--organized societies who chose/choose their leaders and who engaged in trade with other Native Nations."

North and South America are current and accurate names but calling the indigenous people of either continent "First Americans" is wrong because the people predate the colonial name. Add to it the fact that Native peoples were not granted citizenship until 1924 and you see that the term "First American(s)" is not an accurate term to use. See this article:

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thank you, Debbie. I greatly appreciate your efforts.

To the extent that many still equate "Americans" with citizens of the United States, when it comes to Native people and U.S. citizenship, it may also merit noting:

"Until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Indians occupied an unusual status under federal law. Some had acquired citizenship by marrying white men. Others received citizenship through military service, by receipt of allotments, or through special treaties or special statutes. But many were still not citizens, and they were barred from the ordinary processes of naturalization open to foreigners. Congress took what some saw as the final step on June 2, 1924 and granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States." Source: U.S. National Parks:, in turn citing: