To Indian or not to Indian

Several years ago I wrote to the Star’s Ombudsman, Don Sellar, in part:

In this day of political correctness, which The Star seems to subscribe to quite rigorously, why is it that the aboriginal peoples of North and South America continue to be called Indians?

Only the people of India are Indians, and only the people of East India are East Indians.

By addressing the aboriginal people as Indians, the media and governments continue to perpetuate the ignorance of one man (Christopher Columbus) who wandered into the Americas and thought he had landed in India.

In the same column, Mr. Sellar also referred to activists such as Ojibwa writer Lenore Keshig-Tobias, who suggested the word Indian is loaded and ought to be avoided. He also noted, Native Affairs columnist Janice Acoose of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix went one step further when she called it “a subtle form of racism” not to capitalize “native, aboriginal and indigenous” when they’re used as adjectives describing the noun Canadian.

In the end, Mr. Sellar decided that for now, The Star would continue to use the word Indian to refer to our Aboriginals.

Recently, the subject was raised again in The Star by Kathy English, the public editor of the paper. She wrote that Yvette Nolan, an Algonquin, considers “Indian” to be an outdated and derogatory word with which to label Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The Star is well aware of the sentiments of many Aboriginals on this issue. However, The Star has decided, “The word Indian, while objectionable to some is still perfectly usable”. The justification was found in the fact that while “Indian” is outdated, since “Indian” has legal meaning under Canada’s Constitution and our Indian Act, it’s not a word that can or should be banned outright in The Star. How convenient to choose to be sanctimonious and fight for the rights of only the vocal and noisy groups, and thereby emerge as the just and the pious fighter for the little guy.

Am I, as one who hails from India, appropriating this subject and making the outrage mine? Yes, because I have stake in this issue too. What’s in a name you say? A whole lot when it defines a people. So as not to confuse Indians with Indians and Indians, those from India have become East Indian. South Indians or North Indians are not “East Indians”.

Sometimes acknowledging and fighting for the sense of identity of an entireĀ  group of people, the original inhabitants of this land no less, should trump expedience. Just as many other descriptions for blacks or Asians and women have been dispensed with, so should the moniker Indians for our Aboriginals be relegated to history to correct Columbus’s historic blunder.

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